She advocates for those in long-term care

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Barbara Ruben

Steveanne Ellis is the new Maryland state long-term care ombudsman.
Photo courtesy of Steveanne Ellis

In her first months on the job as Maryland state long-term care ombudsman, one of Steveanne Ellis’s first hurdles is making sure people know she exists. Ellis oversees the network of staff and volunteers across that state that help resolve resident problems in Maryland’s 230 nursing homes and 1,500 assisted living facilities.

“We really want the residents and the staff to know we’re around, what we do, what the program is all about, that they can reach us, that we’re available,” said Ellis, who was appointed state ombudsman in February.

She even gives out her personal phone number so people don’t have to navigate a maze of voicemail prompts to get assistance.

While information on how to contact the ombudsman must be clearly posted in facilities, and ombudsmen make regular visits, many residents and family members remain unfamiliar with the program, Ellis said.

The program, which has been around since the early 1970s, is part of the national ombudsman program that was established by the Older Americans Act. Under that act, each Area Agency on Aging has an ombudsman office.

In Maryland, there are 19 ombudsman offices, with about 155 volunteers and 36 full-time ombudsmen. In fiscal year 2015, Maryland’s program made more than 11,000 facility visits to check up on everything from medication administration to meal quality to how well staff follow physician’s orders for care. In that year, it addressed nearly 3,000 complaints.

“Best job ever”

Ellis has a degree in social work and has been an ombudsman in Anne Arundel County. Before taking over Maryland’s top ombudsman position, Ellis spent two years in the only other full-time position in the state office.

“Half my career has been in ombudsman work. In between, I’ve worked in nursing homes, hospitals, and with those with brain injury,” she said.

“My mother was in a nursing home, and I’ve had other family members in facilities. I think the nice thing about having all of that background is it really helps me do that job a lot better.

“I know what it’s like to be an employee in a facility. I know what it’s like to have a family member in a facility. I know what it’s like to be an ombudsman out in the field.”

All of that has helped Ellis jump feet first into the job.

“I take it very seriously. It’s the best job ever. But it’s also very hard. I’m very devoted to making sure people in facilities have their rights protected, that they have a good quality of life, that they get good care, that they get choices in making decisions.”

Part of her role involves training both the staff and volunteer ombudsmen throughout the state. She has four training sessions a year for staff, and two conference calls with volunteers each year. The next, in April, will cover end-of-life issues in care facilities.

“I think that’s really important, because all of our ombudsman need to be strong and educated so we can better advocate for people and facilities,” Ellis said. “So that’s a really big focus of mine, to look at how we do our training, to make sure it’s the best it possibly can be and, when situations arise, make sure we’re prepared as best as we can be.”

Common concerns

For two years in a row, the most frequent complaints that have been handled centered around discharge and evictions from nursing homes. These can range from residents being told to leave because they have not paid their bill, to having needs that can’t be met there — such as a dementia patient who starts wandering out of a non-secure facility.

Ellis recalled one woman who insisted she could go home even though she required support 24 hours a day — something she did not have available at home.

In assisted living facilities, food service was the second most frequently cited complaint. “That can be anything from they don’t like the way the food tastes, to the portions are too small, to ‘they serve us baloney sandwiches all day.’

“Issues surrounding [the administration of medication] was concern number three, and then dignity and staff attitude,” Ellis said.

Preventing problems

As much as resolving problems in care facilities is important, Ellis also wants to prevent them from happening in the first place.

“I want people to understand how facilities are organized so they don’t have any false expectations, so they don’t think they’re always going to have shrimp for every meal. I want people to be very realistic about what long-term care is like — that each facility is unique,” she said.

Another goal for Ellis is to educate not just older adults about how ombudsmen can advocate for better care, but younger people as well. That’s because some young people also end up in nursing homes because of accidents or illness. 

Ultimately, Ellis wishes that her position might become unnecessary.

“We would love not to have any problems, ever. We want the residents to do well, the food to be wonderful, the staff to be nice, and everything be just like you want it to be, to be like a home,” she said.

“Whether you are in a nursing home or assisted living for a week or for years, we want it to be homelike and a nice place to be. We want to make sure the quality of life is good.

“Unfortunately, that’s not always the case…but when it’s not, I am glad we can be here to help.”

Ellis can be reached at (410) 767-2161.

These local ombudsman offices can also be contacted about concerns in long-term care or assisted living settings:

Baltimore County: (410) 887-4200

Baltimore City: (401) 396-3144

Anne Arundel County: (410) 222-4464