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Volunteers advocate for patients who don't ask for or are unable to seek answers on their own

An organization in Clackamas County concerns itself strictly with people in long-term care facilities.

They visit people with questions, help solve problems that need taking care of or take care of eliminating an eviction.

These volunteers provide the answers and find solutions and fix problems for people that haven't the background or ability to fix these problems themselves or their families can't help them.

Long-term care ombudsmen aren't always solving problems, sometimes they just visit. These volunteers advocate for patients in long term care and nursing facilities and adult foster homes. The ombudsmen will answer family and patient questions, work through and fix situations that don't seem to have a solution and make sure the patients receive the health and personal care, diets, medicines and abuse and/or problems that need to be fixed.

"The hardest thing for me is seeing a lot of the people who are just depressed," said Valerie Wickland, who works in Clackamas Coumty. "I'll spend time with them if they want me there and I'll talk with the administrator to let them know, but often they already do. I look at ways to help, but it's very hard."

Many of these volunteers are retired and all have gone through a long and thorough training to be able to answer whatever pops up.

The state also has deputies to help the volunteers work through a problem they don't have the background or knowledge to get through.

Often, problems happen when the client doesn't get to take a shower when he or she wants, or gets medicine at times that are different than a patient thinks is right. In other cases they're on restricted diets and complain about the food.

All of these things require an ombudsman to step in.

They work with the patients and the staff to provide care when a patient or the family of a patient complains about abuse or neglect, they also ferret out problems and get them solved. The certified ombudsman volunteer talks with residents about complaints, investigates concerns and complaints, helps resolve them and, at the same time, educates residents, families and the facility staff.

This is an independent state program. It's the only agency operating on behalf of residents. It has no obligations to any facility that provides care or to the state agencies that regulate care providers. The ombudsmen is like an attorney and keeps everything confidential.

Directing the program is Fred Steele. He has a staff of seven paid deputies whose job it is to help the volunteers when they have a question or run into a jam. Each deputy has about 35 volunteers they work with. Steele hopes to increase the deputy numbers by at least one or maybe even two or three.

There are 135 nursing, 540 licensed residential care and assisted living facilities — all a bit different — and 190 memory care facilities in the state. Steele's program is constantly looking for people to serve as certified long term care ombudsmen. However, they tend to wait for the volunteers to have more experience and what Steele calls a "grad school version of ombudsmen training" for those dealing with stickier and memory care situations.

Memory care is harder, he says, because it's important to protect their individual rights.

"If they are harmed and don't report it, we are allowed to make the decision. Then we can report a more complex injury or assault with full ability," Steel said.

"These volunteers visit with the residents to be their voice, to ensure their care and rights are respected," said Steele.

All the volunteer ombudsmen contacted told the Herald they really enjoy the job and find they are providing help to groups of people "…that don't want to bother anyone or that don't have family to advocate for them," said Martha Spence, a volunteer from Clackamas County who has been an ombudsman for about 18 months.

"I do like it, I find it really hard, because it's not always easy to know which doors to knock on and introduce yourself. But it's always rewarding personally," noted Wickland, who is from Sandy.

She started training to be an ombudsman last June and began working as an ombudsman in September.

"I'm retired and have time. I have a son in adult foster care and this training helped me navigate him through an assisted living facility," Wickland said.

Like Spence and Wickland, Kim Arabia, a volunteer from Wilsonville, said the training was hard.

They all spent eight hour days' worth of classes for a week or two in order to get certified, but "…the training and teacher were wonderful," Arabia said.

The training is intense, said Spence. There's a lot of information to absorb and different types of facilities. But it's well done, they teach the regulations with examples, scenarios and situations, along with what has to be considered. The potential ombudsmen then go with a trainer to a facility and observe the staff activities and the rules, Spence said.

"You're assigned a number of facilities to work, the location and the type, and you get to pick from them," Spence said.

Arabia has two facilities she visits weekly, which may not seem like much some weeks, but sometimes these may take more than the four hours per week that is asked. All of them spend about 16 hours a month, sometimes more because the solution can be hard to work out and take longer.

"I like knowing residents [and families] can count on me," Arabia says. "They sense that they have a person they can rely on. It's not enough to just get the job done, knowing they have a person to step in and follow through instead of just a number, is important. Much of the time a problem doesn't take long to fix," she added.

All agree to spend at least a year working once they've been trained,. Some like the work so much they've done it multiple years. Arabia has volunteered for three years and is likely to continue.

An at-home mom, her kids are in high school, so she has some time.

"Volunteering keeps me busy and I enjoy the people," Arabia said. Often, she adds, "residents in mental care aren't open to care. Residents refuse it but their family wants them to have more care, especially if they can't be there often. It's the most frustrating problem, especially when it comes to personal care. They don't want to shower three times a week and don't like it when someone else brushes their teeth."

"The hardest thing for me is seeing a lot of the people who are just depressed," Wickland said. "I'll spend time with them if they want me there and I'll talk with the administrator to let them know, but often they already do. I look at ways to help, but it's very hard."

Spence noted that she's gotten to work with people in Hospice.

"I sometimes find I'm coordinating work. There was a patient in hospice that needed a special bed. My job was to ensure the bed got out of the room it was in and taken to the room it would be used in. I was the person who made sure it got done," she said.

So while the job may be varied from consultant to coordinating moves from one place to another, it's always rewarding especially for those who've retired and are giving back to their brothers and sisters.


Carol Rosen
Reporter
503-266-7507
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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