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Mealtime assistance volunteer enhances patient experience and nutrition

Posted Jun 27th, 2024

We are Niagara Health is a series of stories that celebrates the incredible people working and volunteering in our organization and how they make a difference in the lives of patients and coworkers every day.

Susan Carter provides support and companionship during mealtime at the Niagara Falls Hospital.

Every Wednesday, Susan Carter has breakfast with more than a dozen strangers.

What might seem like an out-of-the-ordinary way to spend her morning, for Carter, a mealtime assistance volunteer at Niagara Health, breakfast provides an opportunity to offer comfort and companionship to patients at the Niagara Falls Hospital.

“I like to think of breakfast as the most important meal of the day,” says Carter. “It’s not just about the food – it’s about lifting spirits and starting the day off on the right foot.”

It’s as simple as arranging a food tray to be within reach or fixing someone a coffee. Other times, it’s greeting patients with ‘good morning’ that’s enough to make them smile and make their day a bit brighter.

“Up to 45 per cent of patients admitted to Canadian hospitals are malnourished,” says Marilee Stickles-White, Manager, Clinical Nutrition Services. “Mealtime assistants help to reduce barriers to eating well at mealtime. We like to consider them part of a patients’ care team.”

Volunteers accompany dietary staff to deliver meal trays to patients. They circulate the unit assisting with meal preparation, such as pouring cereal into a bowl, opening food packaging and most importantly, initiating conversations and encouraging patients to eat. 

Mealtime can be a lonely experience for those in the hospital, especially those who have a longer stay. Mealtime assistants provide social contact during mealtime, helping to alleviate feelings of isolation that can accompany hospitalization.

“Eating is not just about nourishment, it’s a social and comforting experience,” says Carter. “While families can’t be here 24/7, I’m grateful to provide a sense of normalcy and companionship during mealtimes.”

Hospital staff, too, are grateful for Carter’s mealtime support.

It’s more than just a delivery service, it’s about fostering connection and lifting spirits one meal at a time.

“Mealtimes are very busy on hospital units. Staff are often busy distributing medications and feeding patients who require additional support. Volunteers assist patients who may require a little help getting their meal started or need a bit of encouragement to eat,” says Stickles-White.

Carter joined Niagara Health’s team of dedicated volunteers following her retirement this past fall. While her career led her to a fulfilling role in the insurance industry for over four decades, Carter always had a lifelong desire to make a positive impact in a healthcare environment.

Carter connected with Niagara Health’s volunteer resources team, eager to fulfil a role where she would have an opportunity to engage directly with patients in a meaningful way. The mealtime assistant role was a perfect fit.

“To thrive in this role, you have to be a genuine people person and meet individuals where they are,” says Carter. “It’s more than just a delivery service, it’s about fostering connection and lifting spirits one meal at a time.”

Niagara Health is recruiting volunteers to work in many different roles including mealtime assistants. You don’t require a background in healthcare to volunteer.

“At Niagara Health, we provide orientation and training opportunities for volunteers to ensure they feel confident and well-prepared for their roles,” says Amanda Basilone, Manager, Recruitment and Volunteer Resources. “Whether it’s through patient and family support roles, wayfinding or auxiliary, there is a place for everyone to contribute and make a meaningful difference in the lives of patients and their families.”

Currently, there are more than 500 volunteers at Niagara Health who contribute their time across our three hospitals in St. Catharines, Welland and Niagara Falls, as well as Urgent Care Centre’s in Fort Erie and Port Colborne. There is a particular need for volunteers in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland.

“I believe a warm smile, a kind word and a helping hand can make all the difference,” says Carter. “I feel grateful and honoured to be able to provide that little bit of comfort and support. This is why I volunteer.”

Visit our website to learn more or to apply to be a volunteer at Niagara Health.

Niagara Health System