‘Kindness is infectious’: meet our RCN Nurse of the Year 2022

Alison Bunce’s community initiative puts compassion and kindness first, coordinating services such as end of life companionship and ‘back home boxes’ for discharged patients

  • Compassionate Inverclyde was founded by Queen’s Nurse Alison Bunce to mobilise the community and support people in need
  • Volunteers provide care packages for discharged patients living alone, support after bereavement, and help people build connections that boost mental health and well-being
  • Ms Bunce shares her tips on how to develop a compassionate community and lead a team of volunteers
RCN Nurse of the Year 2022 Alison Bunce
RCN Nurse of the Year 2022 Alison Bunce Picture: Mike Wilkinson

An inspirational nurse who set in train a social movement that taps into the kindness of a community where there are high levels of deprivation has been named RCN Nurse of the Year 2022.

Queen’s Nurse Alison Bunce set up and leads Compassionate Inverclyde, a growing and self-organising collaboration of individuals, faith groups, voluntary bodies and businesses working alongside healthcare professionals to support people in crisis.

Channelling the compassion of a community to meet care needs


‘back home boxes’ have been packed for socially isolated people discharged from hospital

Compassionate Inverclyde’s activities vary, but all enable the community to tailor its kindness to meet individual need.

Companions sit with people who would otherwise be alone in their final hours of life; new mothers are befriended and supported in breastfeeding, if they wish; volunteers offer toiletries and night clothes to people admitted to hospital in an emergency, and fill and deliver ‘back home boxes’ to inpatients who live alone and have been discharged from hospital (see box below).

A volunteer-led community support hub provides a place where socially isolated people can find company, and patients receiving palliative care at home are visited and kept company. Helpers make up and distribute comfort bags to people caring for a loved one in hospital.

Ms Bunce received her award at a ceremony in London on 6 October. She won praise for the ambition and imagination she has shown for her community and the effect her leadership has had on recipients of support, as well as volunteers. Earlier in the ceremony, Ms Bunce won the Leadership award, sponsored by LloydsPharmacy Clinical Home Care.

‘I listened to what the community thought was important, to make sure we developed initiatives that would make a difference’

Alison Bunce, RCN Nurse of the Year 2022

Awards judging panel chair Joanne Bosanquet, chief executive of the Foundation of Nursing Studies, said: ‘Ms Bunce demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of her community, collaborated with it and built up its assets.

‘We know our communities will become increasingly important. There is less money for care and people have increasing needs, so creativity will be the way forward. Nurses are closest to their communities and should be leading in this space. She has taken full advantage of every opportunity and she’s a fantastic role model for nurses.’

Back home boxes: an idea that started with a conversation

The idea for ‘back home boxes’ of essential and comforting items offered to people living alone who are being discharged from hospital was sparked by a conversation.

‘I was chatting to someone about people who lived alone and how they didn’t have someone to buy them a pint of milk or loaf of bread when they went home,’ says Alison Bunce.

‘I made up a box and took it to a medical ward at Inverclyde Royal Hospital. I asked the nurse to give it to someone who lived alone. The next day, I telephoned the man to ask if it was useful and he was delighted. I made one every day for ten days and they were all well received.’

‘We are teaching the next generation the value of being kind’

Alison Bunce

Volunteer Paul McIntyre packing of the back home boxes
Volunteer Paul McIntyre packing of the back home boxes Picture: Mike Wilkinson

The boxes contain tea, milk, crackers, tinned food, fruit, vegetables and soap.

‘They have a blanket made by volunteers and a card created by a pupil at a local school,’ says Ms Bunce. ‘We are teaching the next generation the value of being kind.’

Volunteers come to a storeroom in Inverclyde Royal Hospital five days a week, morning and afternoon, to make up the boxes before checking with ward nurses if there is anyone going home who lives alone.

More than 4,400 boxes have been distributed and feedback continues to be heart-warming. One person commented: ‘I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the community.’ Another said: ‘Every single item in the box has been used.’

The service continues to evolve. ‘We are developing our back-home visitor scheme,’ says Ms Bunce. ‘The volunteers have started asking the nurses how old recipients of boxes are. So many people are alone and aged over 80 and we can send a volunteer to check on them.’

An area with a high level of economic deprivation


‘helping hand boxes’ have been given to people unable to leave home during the pandemic

Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation data (2020) shows Inverclyde has high levels of deprivation, with the Greenock town centre area ranked the most deprived in Scotland.

‘People were already having to choose whether to eat or heat their home before the current economic and energy crisis,’ says Ms Bunce.

But she has always known that what the community has in abundance is compassion. With this in mind and inspired by Allan Kellehear’s work on compassionate communities, she began researching public health approaches to palliative care.

It was in 2012, while she was director of care at Ardgowan Hospice in Greenock, that she held a public meeting at which 150 members of the public signed a pledge to make Inverclyde a compassionate community.

In 2016, the hospice granted Ms Bunce a two-year secondment and she won a Florence Nightingale Foundation Travel Scholarship, visiting Australia, the United States and relevant projects in England.

‘I would urge nurses to apply for the programme,’ she says. ‘There was no compassionate community in Scotland so I had to go abroad to meet people who had started them.’

Establishing how to mobilise a community network


people attend Compassionate Inverclyde’s weekly friendship hub

With no budget, Ms Bunce established Compassionate Inverclyde in 2017. She put together a board of key stakeholders including care and education providers and the police. Crucially, she persuaded the board to have strategic objectives rather than defined outcomes, to see what evolved.

Over the course of one year, she held focus groups and public meetings to gather ideas about the best ways to support people who are ill, at the end of life, or bereaved.

‘I listened to what the community thought was important, to make sure we developed initiatives that would make a difference,’ says Ms Bunce. ‘You need to meet people where they are, so neighbourhoods develop solutions designed by local people and we can recruit the volunteers who sustain the projects.

‘During lockdown we had to think on our feet. We gave out more than 500 boxes of essentials to people shielding or socially isolated’

Alison Bunce, RCN Nurse of the Year 2022

‘The community thought Inverclyde was a great place to live – compassionate, neighbourly and helpful. And that is what Compassionate Inverclyde captures.’

The strength of the collaboration is in its simplicity. Volunteers run the initiatives and seek and interview recruits. They discuss what works and what does not. Referrals come to Ms Bunce through telephone calls or messages and she passes them to the appropriate team.

‘It is straightforward and easy to get involved,’ she says.

Alison Bunce addressing a bereavement group at Greenock Morton Football Club
Alison Bunce addressing a bereavement group at Greenock Morton Football Club Picture: Mike Wilkinson

The No One Dies Alone scheme


items of nightwear have been given to people in hospital

A notable initiative is No One Dies Alone (NODA). Volunteers go to the home of someone who is dying and alone.

‘We hold reflective meetings for volunteers and NODA needs a small amount of paperwork, as volunteers need a protecting vulnerable groups certificate, but I’ve streamlined the training from one day to two hours,’ says Ms Bunce. ‘It’s not complicated to be there for someone.’

Ms Bunce and the network have shown how they can mobilise at a pace that formal services cannot match. In one instance, a 105-year-old woman wanted to die at home, but had no family or friends to be with her.

‘The district nurse called me and I put the message on the NODA volunteers’ WhatsApp group,’ Ms Bunce says. ‘Within 20 minutes someone was at her bedside. She was supported 24 hours a day for five days until she died.

Nicole McCue, the nurse who made that request, said: ‘It’s just brilliant that NODA supports people, but it’s also a huge relief to us as nurses, knowing our patients are receiving the dignity and respect they deserve and have the company of a caring person.’

Nurses and their own loved ones have benefited from the service too.

‘Compassionate Inverclyde sat with my mother-in-law so we could then rest and care for my father-in-law, knowing someone was with her,’ one relative who is a nurse said in feedback. ‘It made all the difference, especially to my mother-in-law, who was frightened.’

NODA companions have given more than 3,500 hours to comforting 109 individuals, despite the pandemic halting much of Compassionate Inverclyde’s work.

Activities during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown


The number of hours companions have sat with people at the end of life

‘During lockdown we had to think on our feet,’ says Ms Bunce. ‘We gave out more than 500 boxes of essentials to people shielding or socially isolated. Nurses told me that people admitted to hospital did not have necessities and their relatives could not bring them in. I put an appeal on social media and we provided more than 1,600 items of nightwear and 3,400 toiletry packs.

‘Volunteers picked up and delivered prescriptions and made nearly 7,000 phone calls to lonely and isolated people.’

The pandemic revealed the model’s flexibility.

‘So many new people called us to see how they could help,’ says Ms Bunce. ‘It was nice to offer the opportunity to help in a meaningful way.’

Compassionate Inverclyde improves the health and well-being of its volunteers too. Volunteer Doris Wood, one of those who nominated Ms Bunce for an award, describes a man who was repeatedly in hospital due to mental ill health.

‘He came to our bereavement cafe and felt accepted. Then he started volunteering and his mental health has never been better because he has something meaningful to do,’ she says. ‘I, too, was socially isolated before I joined.’

How to set up a compassionate community

Compassionate Inverclyde volunteers working in the community
Picture: Mike Wilkinson

Alison Bunce’s 12-step guide for nurses inspired to establish a compassionate community:

  1. Start with conversations about what matters most to local people
  2. Seek development support from a trusted, compassionate leader
  3. Develop collaborative leadership at all levels around a shared purpose and values
  4. Anchor the movement with a trusted community organisation
  5. Establish a courageous guiding coalition that gives permission to act, avoids unnecessary bureaucracy and enables risk-taking
  6. Connect as ordinary people and find creative ways to make it easy for people to volunteer and for everyone to be kind, helpful, and to have a can-do attitude
  7. Value and empower all contributors and ensure they have a strong and equal voice
  8. Nurture volunteers through peer support, reflective practice and wholehearted facilitation
  9. Use social media to communicate and organise
  10. Stay curious and keep learning from other compassionate communities
  11. Continue to pay attention to what matters to people and share stories that touch hearts and inspire kindness
  12. Plan for a sustainable model of leadership and governance

A compassionate leader who listens to people


phone calls have been made to lonely and isolated people during the pandemic

Ms Bunce is modest about her achievements and points to the volunteers as the key to Compassionate Inverclyde’s success. But Ms Wood disagrees. She says: ‘While everyone has a role to play, there is a need for a strong, courageous and compassionate leader who knows the community and is willing to share leadership. Alison is genuinely compassionate and kind. She listens to people.’

Anne Hendry, director of the International Foundation for Integrated Care in Scotland, co-nominated Ms Bunce.

Dr Hendry says: ‘She recognises and nurtures the strengths of individuals, families and communities. She finds creative ways to make it easy for people of all ages and backgrounds to contribute, ensuring they have a strong and equal voice.

‘Alison has nurtured and supported a diverse group of citizen leaders, providing opportunities for peer support and reflective practice. She has navigated bureaucracy and enabled positive risk-taking that is proportionate and person-centred.’

Alison Bunce at the friendship hub in Greenock, Inverclyde
Alison Bunce at the friendship hub in Greenock, Inverclyde Picture: Mike Wilkinson

Acting as ‘the catalyst’ of a compassionate community

Ms Bunce was delighted to be named RCN Nurse of the Year 2022.

She says: ‘It endorses nurses being in positions that are creative and innovative. I’ve been proud to be a nurse since I started my training in 1981 and I try every day to be a role model to other nurses and the people I work alongside who want to make a difference.’

Her work has attracted interest in the other countries of the UK, as well as in Australia and the US. Her latest project is helping businesses develop a bereavement charter to support employees who lose a loved one, and she is planning to launch an award scheme for kindness.

‘I’m just the catalyst,’ she says. ‘You can grow a compassionate community by starting with just one act because kindness is infectious.’

Alison Bunce won the Leadership award, sponsored by LloydsPharmacy Clinical Homecare, before being named RCN Nurse of the Year 2022.

The company’s head of nursing Joanne Upton says: ‘Alison’s work has demonstrated the benefits of compassion and kindness. We were so impressed by her dedication.

Alexandra is the headline sponsor for the RCN Nursing Awards 2022

‘This programme not only makes a positive impact in the community but also challenges society through the companionship programmes for people in the last hours of life. I am truly amazed at the holistic approach and look forward to seeing this translated on a broader scale.’

Alexandra is the headline sponsor of the RCN Nursing Awards 2022.