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Engaging Volunteers with Mild Cognitive Disorders

Margie Solomon | Published on 6/3/2021

As a Volunteer Engagement Professional, I believe success is often measured not only by the impact on the person receiving services from Jewish Family Service (JFS) volunteers, but also on the person providing help and support. In fact, my favorite part of this job is being able to satisfy the needs of individuals on BOTH sides on a volunteer match! 

Last year I met Millie, a young adult with special needs who wanted to volunteer with JFS.  After speaking with Millie, her mother, and her job coach, it became clear that Millie had a huge heart and a love for helping others, especially older adults. Millie wanted to volunteer to be of service and to gain experience she could add to job applications. We quickly found administrative work and a regular schedule for her, the job coach, and her mother to do together.  

Now for the next person in the story: our dear, long term office volunteer, Sarah. Sarah helped us on a regular basis with administrative tasks in the receptionist space for many years. Volunteering at JFS was a big part of Sarah's life, and a huge source of pride for her and her family. 

After an extended trip with her family, we learned from Sarah's daughter that she returned "a different person," and had suffered a sudden and noticeable cognitive decline. We noticed it too -- when Sarah came in to do data entry work that had previously been second nature, she now needed help on the most basic of tasks. Her increased confusion and anxiety about performing simple assignments in the office was both concerning and heartbreaking to those who had worked with her -- and grown to love her -- over the years. We sought out projects that Sarah would be able to accomplish with minimal supervision, but eventually we ran out of options to effectively engage her. 

Enter Millie and her supportive crew! We came up with a simple, yet essential project in the File Room and had them all work together, essentially “supervising” each other. JFS got the practical benefit of the file work they were doing, but WE were helping them, and THEY were helping each other! The arrangement continued until the project was complete. Millie went on to start a job in a senior living facility, and Sarah moved closer to her family in Minneapolis. 

But the story doesn't end here. Sarah's daughter came to JFS with an idea for replicating this type of experience for others with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or early stage dementia. All too often when signs of cognitive impairment appear in volunteers, organizations and volunteer managers don't know how to restructure work and provide appropriate supervision to support the changing needs of these individuals. We are now collaborating with MAVA and other interested professionals to create a training experience to equip staff to effectively work with individuals with MCI or early stage dementia. We hope this will result in funding and implementation of a program that provides volunteer opportunities to this population. The vision is to offer ways that individuals with MCI/early stage dementia can stay involved in the organizations they care about and to provide meaningful engagement in their lives. Stay tuned on how this unfolds!