Advocating for long-term care residents

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Jacob Schaperow

Pearl Hunt visits the Sligo Creek Nursing Home and Jrose Assisted Living in Silver Spring at least once a week and often more frequently. There, she acts as an advocate for the residents in their dealings with the administration.

As a volunteer long-term care ombudsman, Hunt makes it clear that she is a third party not affiliated with the nursing home and lets the residents know that anything they tell her is confidential

Hunt, 87, was one of six seniors from around the country recognized for their volunteer efforts at a White House event in July. In a panel with the other volunteers, Hunt spoke about what she sees as the biggest issues facing nursing homes and assisted living facilities today: abuse and neglect.

Hunt has been involved with the ombudsman program since 2004 and has worked to protect the rights of the aging for much longer. She attended the first White House Conference on Aging in 1961, when she was working as a nursing home administrator herself.

She said that back then there were no regulations governing nursing homes. “A nursing home’s doors were locked, and if they wanted you in, you were in, and if they wanted you out, you were out,” she said.

Abuse and neglect at nursing homes existed then and is still present today, Hunt said. The ombudsman program helps combat these problems through volunteers and employees who go out to nursing homes and assisted living facilities regularly to represent the residents.

An unbiased perspective

“What makes the ombudsmen unique is that they are not part of the nursing home staff. They are independent, and their role is to work with and on behalf of the residents,” Maryland State Ombudsman Alice Hedt said.

The Maryland program includes 40 paid ombudsmen and 122 volunteers. In the last year, the program has addressed more than 3,000 complaints and provided 6,800 consultations to the 47,000 people living in assisted living and nursing homes throughout the state.

Virginia volunteer ombudsman Joan Makurat sees her role this way: “If you get a working relationship with the staff, and a friendly relationship with the residents, they’ll tell you things they wouldn’t tell anybody else.”

Makurat, who lives in Fairfax, Va., also attended the White House event. She has been volunteering with the Northern Virginia Long-Term Care Ombudsman program since 2004 and is the ombudsman for Commonwealth Care of Virginia nursing home.

The D.C. ombudsman program touched almost 3,000 of the District’s 5,000 residents, according to the D.C. ombudsman, Lynne Person.

The top five complaints the ombudsmen get from residents are about care, the environment, autonomy and privacy, staffing and food, Person said.

Becoming an ombudsman

New ombudsman recruits attend several days of required training sessions, and then shadow another ombudsman in the field.

Eventually they are assigned to a specific facility, generally located somewhere near their home, where they meet with residents and address their concerns on a regular basis.

“You have to love people,” said ombudsman Eileen Bennett, the volunteer coordinator for the Montgomery County program. “That is a requirement. If you are a paper pusher only, this job is not for you … You need to be ready to get to know [the residents] and accept them as a friend in your life,”

“A volunteer has to have really good communication skills,” Hedt added. “They have to be able to communicate clearly with both the residents and with the administrator or nurse or other staff at the facility.”

At the same time, there’s also room for people who would rather contribute in other ways, according to Person. “We find that all volunteers may not necessarily be comfortable going into a facility, but there’s always other different types of activities and events that we have going on throughout the year where we could definitely benefit from having volunteers.”

For more information about volunteering in Maryland, contact Jose Jimenez at (410) 767-2161 or email jjimenez@ooa.state.md.us.

For the D.C. program, call volunteer coordinator Genesis Cachedon at (202) 434-2037.

The Northern Virginia ombudsman program can be reached at (703) 324-5861, TTY 711, or go online to www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dfs/olderadultservices/LTCOmbudsman.

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