Ombudsmen keep watch over elders in need

Posted March 11, 2009, at 6:59 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:02 a.m.

When a loved one can no longer live at home and must enter some type of facility, it can be traumatic for everyone. Regardless of how much research is done, and how wonderful the chosen place seems to be, there still may be nagging fears, such as “How can I be absolutely sure what kind of care is being given when I’m not there?”

Take heart. There is a program in place to be your watchdog. It is like having a second set of eyes looking over your loved one’s care.

The Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is a nonprofit statewide agency that has well-trained volunteers who go into nursing homes, assisted living facilities and residential care facilities to monitor care and, if necessary, advocate for the residents.

The program also is available to those who are living independently, but may be having a problem with their home care worker. This program gives a voice to individuals who previously did not have one.

An ombudsman, as described by the program’s brochure, is a “specially trained advocate who is given authority under federal and Maine law to investigate and resolve complaints made by, or on behalf of, long-term care consumers.”

Most importantly, however, all communication between the ombudsman and resident is strictly confidential. If a complaint is made, the individual’s name will not be used without his or her consent. Only the problem will be addressed.

“The program actually began in 1978 when family members of nursing home residents testified before Congress about the poor care their loved ones were getting,” said Brenda Gallant, executive director of the Ombudsman program.

“At that time there were no mechanisms in place by which residents could make complaints about the care they received and have those complaints investigated and resolved,” she said. “This led to the establishment of ombudsman programs in every state.”

Volunteer ombudsmen are subjected to a thorough screening because they are dealing with a “very vulnerable population,” she said. Once accepted into the program, they generally stay for a long time.

“A lot of the volunteers have had family in the same position as the residents they are working with,” said Sue McKeen, volunteer program director for the ombudsman program. “There is a connection. And we all want to make sure these individuals’ rights are upheld. It is very rewarding.”

Along with a handful of staff that provide ombudsmen services, there are 80 volunteers statewide committed to this work. They log thousands of hours in the course of a year, McKeen said.

Once trained, volunteers are assigned to a facility in their area where they make weekly visits averaging approximately two hours each. These visits are at different times and not scheduled with the staff in advance. By law, an ombudsman may enter a facility any time, day or night, 365 days a year. This is a key component of the program. Every facility is required to have an ombudsman poster with the 800-number in plain sight.

While on site, volunteers complete a contact sheet covering issues such as cleanliness — of both the resident and facility, temperature of the facility, staff interaction with residents, assistance with meals, and location of call bells. Things as simple as cold coffee or as serious as neglect are reported, either to staff in the first case or the authorities if the resident is in danger.

Again, confidentially is strongly upheld and the source of a complaint is never revealed without express consent of the individual, unless there is evident abuse or neglect.

“We also assist residents with Medicare problems, discharge issues and anything else they might need,” Gallant said. “We investigate, advocate, educate and lobby. We do it all.”

For information on the ombudsman program, call (800) 499-0229.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. E-mail Higgins Taylor at chtaylor@eaaa.org. For information on EAAA, call 941-2865, toll-free (800) 432-7812, e-mail info@eaaa.org or log on EAAA.org. TTY 992-0150.

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