THE BLOG

8 Ways to Volunteer to Help America's Largest Volunteer Health Care Work Force: Family Caregivers

04/22/2013 06:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

As we officially commemorate National Volunteer Week, I am giving a shout out to those 65 million family caregivers nationwide -- most of them caring for someone over age 50 -- who essentially have volunteered to care for a loved one who is sick, getting older, or has a disorder or disability. Caregivers are an invaluable volunteer army drafted into service to help loved ones remain at home rather than in facilities and institutions.

Yet, caregivers often sacrifice their own health and wellness needs. Studies show caregivers are twice as likely as the general population to develop chronic illness -- heart disease, cancer, diabetes -- earlier in life due to the prolonged stress of caring for loved ones. These first responders for our aging society need help. Here are eight ways you can volunteer to support a family caregiver in your life, your community or at work.

1. Volunteer for an Online Community of Care - There are online sites where can you create private communities to give caregivers the respite they desperately need. One of the largest, Lotsa Helping Hands, launched its "Year of Helping Hands" campaign last fall to encourage friends, family and co-workers to support the nation's caregivers. More than 1.3 million volunteers have provided meals, rides and other help to caregivers using a sophisticated HelpCalendar tool. Partnering with more than 50 non-profit organizations, including the Alzheimer's Association, Kidney Cancer Association and Muscular Dystrophy Association, Lotsa Helping Hands has also recently announced LotsaHelp@Work to encourage employers to utilize the tool to help the 15 percent of their employees who are also caregivers. Other online volunteer communities for caregivers include: CaringBridge, CareFlash and CarePages.

2. Volunteer to Make or Deliver a Meal - More than 8 million caregivers live long-distance from their loved one and cannot be there every day to ensure they eat properly or at all. Meals on Wheels Association of America have more than 2.5 million volunteers who pack and deliver 1 million meals every day to those who are homebound - many of them over the age of 60. Another organization serving the greater New York City area is God's Love We Deliver (GLWD), a nonprofit meal delivery volunteer organization for those with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses founded in 1985. According to Em Findley, communications coordinator for GLWD, caregivers can also be at risk for hunger or malnutrition. Over the last two years, GLWD has seen a 40 percent increase in requests for meals for the family caregiver of those clients over age 65.

3. Volunteer as a Driver: Getting around is another way to help caregivers and their loved ones. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 83 percent of caregivers provide transportation help to their loved one and AARP reported caregivers provide 1.4 billion trips per year for loved ones who no longer drive. Check these sites for becoming a volunteer driver: National Center for Senior Transportation, ITNAmerica and SilverRide.

4. Volunteer for Hospice Care: When facing end-of-life situations, there is an amazing network of volunteers for hospice support. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, more than 460,000 Americans volunteer every year to bring comfort and peace to grieving families -- and, 20 percent of these volunteers are new to hospice care. Hospice volunteers find it personal gratifying and emotionally fulfilling to help families through what they call this "living" rather than "dying" experience. In fact, to de-institutionalize hospice care, facilities who receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement must have 5 percent of the hours of care provided be performed by volunteers.

5. Volunteer to Support Caregivers of Veterans: According to a study by the National Alliance for Caregiving, veterans' caregivers bear a higher burden than most caregivers, Compared to caregivers nationally, caregivers of veterans are twice as likely to be in their caregiving role for more than 10 years (30 percent vs. 15 percent) and they have twice the levels of stress (88 percent) or depression (63 percent) than typical caregivers. Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), dedicated to those who were injured since 9/11, has an online community for its members to share stories and volunteer to help one another. You can also volunteer as a camp counselor for the National Military Family Association Operation Purple Healing Adventures, a family camp experience for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) military families. To date, more than 45,000 military children and teens and other family have been given hope and healing since 2004.

6. Volunteer for Local Groups and Faith-based Organizations: Many local churches, synagogues and mosques offer support groups and other ways to help caregivers. An inter-faith non-profit organization which has a plethora of volunteering opportunities is National Volunteer Caregiving Network (formerly known as Faith in Action Network). Typical services include transportation, grocery shopping, minor home repairs, friendly visiting, bill paying, light housekeeping and respite for the caregiver. Local grass roots groups also provide essential help to caregivers. One is Lori's Hands, named in honor of a woman who volunteered for seniors but who recently lost her battle with breast cancer. This university-based group is galvanizing college students to carry on in her name asking students of a service learning class at the University of Delaware to volunteer for yard work, grocery shopping, household chores and other tasks to help families and individuals affected by chronic illness.

7. Volunteer to Give Caregivers Respite: When it comes to caregiving, getting a break (called respite) is essential but elusive. The ARCH National Respite and Resource Center has great information on how to volunteer as a respite care worker. Easter Seals and ARCH report volunteers are essential to families who may not be able to afford respite, who live in geographically isolated areas with fewer resources, or who face limited access to services because of a shortage of paid providers. One group, Respite Education and Support Tools (REST) is dedicated to creating an international network of respite volunteers and recently completed trainings in 15 states and in Canada. Focused on "training the trainers," the program provides the education and tools for an 8-hour volunteer respite training.

8. Snoopy to the Rescue: Volunteer along with your pet (dog, cat, bunny rabbit) to provide pet therapy to autistic children, cancer patients, nursing home and assisted living residents and others needing the unconditional love of an animal. The largest nationwide directory for volunteering for local pet therapy programs is through Pet Partners.

Make a plan and volunteer to care for the caregivers this week (and every week). Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."

Sherri Snelling is the author of A Cast of Caregivers (Balboa Press) and CEO of the Caregiving Club.