28/02/2014 07:21 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 06:59 BST

Volunteers Still Form the Backbone of Hospice Care

Just how important are volunteers to hospices and could their role change in the future?

All charities rely to some extent on volunteers to support their work but for hospices they are crucial and always have been ever since the modern hospice movement was first founded by Dame Ciceley Saunders in the UK back in the 1960s.

Fifty years on, volunteers still form the backbone of hospice care. Indeed without them many hospices simply could not continue to carry out their vital work supporting terminally ill people and their families.

In addition, without volunteers the cost of hospice care would increase by around a quarter. Their financial worth to hospices is estimated to be more than £112million.

Historically, given the nature of their work and strong links with a wide cross-section of people in their local communities hospices have always attracted volunteers and are a thriving example of the "Big Society" in action.

Currently, hospice volunteers carry out a wide variety of activities - from helping serve drinks to patients to providing bereavement support for terminally ill people's families, as well as helping hospices raise vital funds.

The rich history of hospice volunteering is explored in a new multi-media exhibition supported by Help the Hospices - 'The Heritage of Care: Hospice Volunteering in the UK' - which opens at gallery@oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf in London this week. Through compelling photographs, oral histories and video interviews, it highlights the moving memories and life-enhancing experiences of hospice volunteers and highlights how volunteering has changed over the decades.

For example, the scale of volunteering in hospices is now much bigger with at least 125,000 volunteers contributing their time and energy to support hospice care.

Also, people from all walks of life are involved in hospice volunteering, reflecting the diversity that exists in the communities that hospices serve.

The exhibition has been collated by Eyes Wide Open - a London-based partnership community programme - and organised as part of the Heritage of Care project exploring the history of the hospice movement in the UK and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

While volunteers are clearly an important part of the history of hospices, they are set to play an even more important part in their future.

Hospices will face considerable challenges over the next 10-15 years as demand for hospice care is expected to increase significantly in coming decades, driven largely by the UK's ageing population. More people are living for longer with complex, chronic health conditions and often have multiple conditions.

An earlier Populus survey commissioned by Help the Hospices showed that seven in ten people think demand for hospice care will "rocket" in coming decades because of the UK's rapidly ageing population.

The effective use of trained and empowered volunteers will be very important in how hospices respond to these challenges and their roles are set to expand in the future to cover a wider range of activities to support and complement paid staff in hospices.

For example, specially trained volunteers will play a vital role in providing direct care and support to people affected by terminal illness or a life-limiting condition - their families and carers - by offering practical and social support, basic care, advocacy and help accessing information.

It is likely they will be more involved in helping provide hospice care in people's homes. There is also potential for volunteers in the future to act as "navigators" for hospice patients helping them access support from across the wider care system, including different providers.

So the role of hospice volunteers is changing. However their compassion and the patient-centred approach they bring will not. Volunteers have a critical contribution to make to the experience of hospice care. They give their personal time freely and regularly. They contribute their skills, their energy, their warmth and kindness - all of which they share with people who are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their lives.

The value of this to patients cannot be underestimated. Aside from the important practical support volunteers provide, it is often the "invisible benefits" arising from emotional support or just human kindness that can make all the difference. Patient feedback consistently highlights the value of volunteers in increasing their self-worth and overall wellbeing.

The army of hospice volunteers will continue to offer something that is unique and special to hospice care.

To find out more about volunteering at a hospice, please visit:

For more details on the hospice volunteering exhibition visit

Jonathan Ellis is Director of Policy and Advocacy at national hospice charity Help the Hospices which supports and champions the work of 220 hospices across the UK.