Enhancing the quality of life, together

Active citizenship in residential homes

What role do people play by taking an active interest in residential homes, both on a strategic and operative level? This is a key issue on the working agenda of the KWA for 2010 and 2011. The KWA is a board of trustees for senior citizens, and one of the biggest sponsors of residential homes in Germany. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Gerontology, Health and Social Aspects (GeroS), which is based at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg, was asked to consult the KWA on this issue and conduct an empirical study.

Some people might ask what voluntary work and volunteers have to do with residential homes in the first place. Many homes charge premium rates for the security, comfort of living and services that they provide in an effort to ensure the elderly enjoy their years of retirement. Is homes’ asking volunteers to play an active role in providing services almost an admission that they are not actually able to supply what they are being asked to? Is active citizenship being used to plug a gap in professional services, cut costs and compensate for savings in social budgets? Superficially, this is often the reaction to this issue. But the KWA trustees are at pains to emphasize that this issue is about far more than this. It is widely understood how important involvement in elderly welfare is, and this is also particularly evident when people demonstrate their commitment. And it is known that people who need support enjoy better quality of life when they see people taking a voluntary interest in their welfare without being paid in return. The KWA also knows what shapes the image of residential homes and care establishments: When people identify with an establishment, when they become part of something through their own personal commitment, this trust is conveyed to others – and later, people sometimes even select this home or establishment for their own retirement.

The GeroS Steinbeis Transfer Center was invited to provide the KWA with concept advice and conduct a study into KWA establishments. Its survey was carried out among residents and managers at homes, plus volunteers from outside. The study demonstrated clearly the extent to which residents were involved in community activities themselves earlier on in life and their continuing level of commitment. As well as being on the receiving end of services, they actively shape community life. Involving social volunteers in the day-to-day running of homes should never be taken for granted. As a German saying goes: voluntary work may not be paid, but it’s not for nothing. And this was also underscored by the KWA study. The volunteers questioned gave some useful pointers for the strengths at homes, but also pointed out certain weaknesses.

It is understandable that full-time workers at elderly homes and nursing establishments are sometimes quite hesitant about the issue of citizen involvement. They are quick to assume jobs could be lost. Also, drawing on support from volunteers does not fit in well with the classic concept of market orientation and the notion of elderly and care homes essentially being service providers. It is a major challenge to involve volunteers in the work of a home. It changes the nature of the organization and influences the culture, people’s perceptions of professional staff, and management responsibilities. This is also one of the key statements made in the new framework model: Managing volunteers and fostering active citizenship within KWA homes are the tasks of management. If homes succeed in making voluntary work – carried out by and for residents – a defining feature of homes, as a social enterprise, this gives a lift to the quality of life in residential homes and reflects well in its image.

The KWA concept also includes promoting active citizenship among staff as part of HR development, and the KWA becoming commercially involved in social causes in its role as a social enterprise. A particular emphasis within this concept is leveraging the core competences of the enterprise to contribute to the sustainable development of the community and to make its expertise in the elderly available to others. The chairman of the KWA, Dr. Stefan Arend, considers the inclusion of active citizenship in the model of the KWA a key quality criterion of KWA residential homes. All people involved in this issue are aware that this will be a long learning process which cannot be imposed on others or decreed from above. Voluntary work and understanding active citizenship require social understanding. Fostering this understanding takes the right skills and a corporate culture that appreciates why becoming involved adds value. If the project being worked on by the KWA in collaboration with the GeroS Transfer Center is a success, the path it has trodden could provide an example for the sector as a whole.

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