By Vanessa Ho
When Char Tait’s mother was living in long-term care facilities, Tait was grateful for the volunteer ombudsmen who visited her mother and helped explain her legal rights as a resident.
“It gave her a voice she didn’t think she had,” said Tait, who lives in the Chelan County town of Manson. The experience inspired Tait to volunteer as an ombudsman in 2011.
Now 69, Tait spends six to eight hours a week visiting a handful of long-term care facilities, where she checks on residents, listens to their concerns and works to resolve them.
“I get the satisfaction of feeling like I’ve done something to help somebody,” Tait said. Over the years, she has helped a woman who was financially exploited by a relative and a man who worried about the safety of his medication. “I am the listening ear to any concerns with the residents, no matter how big or little their issue, of if they just want to talk.”
Tait is one of about 350 volunteers with the Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. This publicly funded, federally mandated office advocates for the roughly 55,000 state residents in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult family homes and other long-term care facilities.
“Our mission is to promote and protect the legal rights of residents, and we do that through quick, low-level problem-solving in the facilities,” said Patricia Hunter, the state ombuds, a relatively new title. “We have the responsibility to hear and understand the needs of residents.”
A need in rural areas
The program responds to complaints about quality of care and collects data to advocate for better care policies. Ombudsmen are independent of the agency that licenses long-term care facilities.
The program needs more volunteer ombudsmen, particularly in rural areas in Central and Eastern Washington. Volunteers must pass a background check and complete 32 hours of training. The program asks for a commitment of four hours a week and assigns the volunteers to specific facilities.
Hunter said volunteers should be passionate about helping people and confident in speaking up for them, especially in potentially stressful situations involving family members or facility employees.
“This is not a friendly ‘Bring cupcakes and how are you doing today, can I push your chair?’ program,” Hunter said. “This is a federal program to be the first line of protection for very vulnerable people.”
She said most volunteers are retirees who find the work rewarding and bring valuable life experiences that often include having cared for older relatives. Volunteers also serve on advisory councils, lobby in the state capital and assist the program’s 18 full-time employees.
For John Barnett, a longtime volunteer ombudsman and former AARP Washington president, helping people is a way to give back and learn about long-term care. Common complaints, he said, include meager staffs, long wait times for help and unappealing food.
Barnett, 85, of Kirkland, recalled helping a woman in her 90s receive care for pressure ulcers after she had repeatedly complained of pain at her nursing home.
“My small intervention maybe prolonged her life, or at least improved her quality of life,” Barnett said. “The program is a great way to learn how vulnerable adults are being cared for in your state.”
To prepare for the wave of aging boomers, Hunter wants to increase the number of volunteers to at least 500. To do so, she and AARP Washington have pushed for more funding to train volunteers. The work has been part of AARP’s larger goal to help people age with dignity.
“We want to make sure the rights of people in long-term care are respected and recognized, and that’s why we support the ombudsman program,” said Cathy MacCaul, AARP Washington advocacy director. “They play a pivotal role.”
To learn more about volunteering for the ombudsman program, go to waombudsman.org or call 800-562-6028.
Vanessa Ho is a writer living in Seattle.