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Long Term Care Ombudsman: Volunteers Advocate for the Rights and Dignity of Long-Term Care Facility Residents

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It could be dirty floors, foul smells, or just a complaint of persistent cold food. As a Certified Long-Term Care Volunteer Ombudsman, Kendall Williams looks  for these issues and more in his visits to the long-term care facilities he is assigned to in Clackamas County.  There are clues that tell him about the care and quality of life of residents.  As an advocate for the residents for the Oregon Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, Williams says, “You want to see the residents up, dressed, and engaged and enjoying life as best as they can.”

Williams, who began his volunteering after seeing a call for Ombudsman volunteers online, was eager to use his professional skills after he retired in 2006.   “When I saw it, I thought I can do that. I enjoy elders. They have wisdom and stories to tell. They are still individuals with rights, the same as I have.”  Today, Williams is one of 175 certified volunteer ombudsmen working to ensure that over 42,000 Oregonians living in long-term care facilities enjoy freedom from abuse and neglect and the freedom to make choices about their care.  Trained and authorized to visit care facilities, Williams is first and foremost an advocate for residents and investigates complaints. “Certified Ombudsmen volunteers are needed in all areas of the state,” says Gretchen Jordan, Volunteer Recruiter for the Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. “We have a small staff and volunteers do more than 80% of the 13,000 visits annually.  They are a critical link to ensure quality care for those most vulnerable in Long-Term care facilities.”

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As the designated Ombudsman for a facility that includes skilled nursing, nursing home, and both a private pay and a Medicaid assisted living, Williams’s work as an Ombudsman ensures the quality of life of nearly 200 residents. “It is nice for the residents to know that there is someone working just for them.” Williams points out that residents, especially those in the nursing home side who have to rely on caregivers for basic needs, often feel vulnerable.  “It is not just malicious intent. People who work in these facilities care about their jobs and about the residents. But, sometime residents need an advocate.”

Williams, who spends between 10-15 hours a week in his volunteer role, says that having been a practicing attorney enjoys the flexibility his volunteer position offers.  “I don’t have to be at a given place at given time.” Though there are scheduled meetings and conferences to attend, Williams likes being able to drop in for visit when it suits him. “I have passion for advocating, and working one on one with people.  I also have a background and deep interest in public health, and this volunteer role allows me to combine those interests.  I may stop by and have a chat with residents and also talk to the Resident Care Manager, or respond to specific concerns from the residents, family members, or staff.”

At the invitation of residents, Williams also attends monthly resident meetings where they discuss issues they care about from care concerns to food and activities. And when residents request, he meets with individuals to listen to concerns and complaints and then works to help them resolve issues. Sometimes Williams is invited by the facility staff such as a social worker to sit in on care conferences as a resident advocate. Williams says that often his role is that of a mediator who helps work out issues for a win-win situation for all involved.

Most memorable for Williams is an experience in his Ombudsman career of working with a resident couple in the nursing facility who wanted to have a romantic relationship, despite objections and concerns from family members.   “He was a younger man, and she was older, but had the right to have a relationship as they desired.”  Certainly the requests and concerns are varied and interesting work, Wiliams noted, that keeps him engaged in learning all he can about how best to advocate.

After volunteering for over a year and responding to nearly 100 cases, Williams is still going strong and as committed as when he started.  Williams urges other AARP members to join him as a volunteer Ombudsman. “You are helping people’s quality of life and helping them be their own person.” When asked who is most suited to be an Ombudsman, Williams says, “someone who enjoys older people. You have to be a people person and comfortable walking into situations. You have to be able to listen, see both sides and you have to be able to sift facts.” But always, Williams emphasizes, an ombudsman has to remember that they are there for the resident.

The Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman is an independent agency of the state of Oregon. Its mission is to enhance the quality of life, improve the level of care, protect the individual's rights and promote the dignity of each Oregon citizen residing in licensed long-term care facilities.  Visit www.Oregon.gov/LTCO to learn more about the program and to find out how to get involved.

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