The role of volunteers supporting people with life-limiting illness in their own homes

Dr Jason Boland, Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Palliative Medicine, and Dr Rachel Fearnley, Honorary Researcher, Hull York Medical School, University of Hull, Hull, UK, explain the background to their longer article in the January/February 2018 issue of the European Journal of Palliative Care.

Dr Rachel Fearnley

Dr Jason Boland

Many organisations caring for people at the end of life rely on volunteers to provide various roles in different settings.However, the volunteers’ role is distinct from that of paid staff and their identity is different.Our evaluation was developed following an independent service evaluation of a charity which provides support to people with serious and life-limiting illness when they are discharged from hospital. The charity relies on the services of volunteers to support their work and to help maintain their ethos.

As described in our article in the European Journal of Palliative Care, the evaluation comprised two parts; first, focus groups and interviews were conducted with volunteers and paid staff from the charity. Second, we sought the views and opinions of local and national end-of-life care organisations within the United Kingdom. The service evaluation highlighted the types of roles the volunteers provided. These included offering practical and emotional support to the person they were assigned to visit. Practical support included light household duties, taking clients shopping, providing short respite care for carers and caring for the client’s children. Emotional support related to providing company and a ‘listening ear’ to the client. We heard from volunteers about the comprehensive induction and training programme they received along with peer support and mentoring.

It was evident throughout the evaluation that staff from the charity valued the additional support that the volunteers provided. The volunteers’ role was seen as being an important and necessary extension to the service offered by the charity. However, it was also noted that staff had concerns about volunteers becoming too involved with their clients. It was felt that they did not always follow health and safety procedures and were, at times, acting beyond their training, skills and remit. There were similarities here to concerns that the volunteers highlighted about their roles. They too noted that a difficult aspect of their role was maintaining professional boundaries with the people they were supporting.

In the current economic climate where funding cuts are encroaching on all areas of health and social care, it is evident that the additional support volunteers can bring to services can be invaluable. However, it can be difficult to manage good practice, which remains within the boundaries of remit, when volunteers are working in isolation in people’s homes. Our evaluation has highlighted the importance of appropriate training and guidance for volunteers, which is aligned to the roles and responsibilities to which they are allocated. As a result of the evaluation, we have developed guidance for volunteers supporting people with serious or life-limiting illness within their homes. This guidance is based on the findings from our evaluation and the published literature.


  1. Burbeck, R., Low, J., Sampson, E.L, Bravery, R., Hill, M., Morris, S., Ockenden, N., Payne, S. and Candy, B. Volunteers in Specialist Palliative Care: A Survey of Adult Services in the United Kingdom. Journal of Palliative Medicine2014; 17 (5): 568 – 574.
  2. Burbeck, R., Candy, B., Low, J. and Rees, R. Understanding the Role of the Volunteer in Specialist Palliative Care: A Systematic Review and Thematic Synthesis of Qualitative Studies. BMC Palliative Care 2014; 13 (3).

Links and resources

Read the full article in the European Journal of Palliative Care
This post relates to the longer article, ‘The role of volunteers supporting people with life-limiting illness in their own homes’, by Rachel Fearnley and Jason W Boland published in the European Journal of Palliative Care 2018; 25 (1).

If you have a web-based subscription to the journal you’ll be able to download this issue, plus all articles in the journal archive. You can also browse the archive and download articles by taking a 10-minute or 30-minute subscription. Members of the EAPC receive discounted subscription rates to the journal – click here to subscribe online.

Read more posts relating to articles published in the European Journal of Palliative Care on the EAPC Blog.


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This entry was posted in EAPC-LINKED JOURNALS, European Journal of Palliative Care, RESEARCH, VOLUNTEERING IN PALLIATIVE CARE and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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