Does it worry you that the needs of your loved ones and friends in long-term care facilities might not be met without your frequent oversight? If you move to a nursing home yourself will there be someone to come regularly and check on you? Ombuds is a person mandated by the Older Americans Act to visit residents in nursing homes, assisted living, and adult family homes to advocate for their rights. In Washington State we formerly had 500 volunteers who received 32 hours of training, were state certified and agreed to visit residents a minimum of four hours per week. Unfortunately, we have lost 150 of those volunteers. Budget cuts in tough times were too deep to continue the ongoing staff support for recruitment, training and oversight of new volunteers to replace those who over the years retired. You can change that.
These are not insignificant numbers. Statewide there are 68,000 mainly vulnerable elders in long-term care facilities. Fewer than half receive regular ombuds visits. Documented cases are found of poorly trained staff, malnutrition and dehydration, bedsores, falls, abuse and neglect, and poor dementia care. The Department of Social and Health Services is required to visit facilities once every 12-18 months unless they receive a complaint. However in the facilities ombuds regularly visit, 92 percent of problems are solved to the satisfaction of the residents without resort to calling on state paid problem-solvers.
In King County volunteers are sufficient in numbers to visit only 45 percent of the 68 nursing homes, 15 percent of the 151 assisted living and 25 percent of the 1,100 adult family homes. I was assigned to a nursing home as an ombuds where I found it was quite common for residents to wait up to 30 minutes for help after ringing the bell for toilet assistance. I noticed and reminded them to help the person in Room 201.
In that nursing home I met an elderly resident who never ate in the dining room. She talked with her hand covering her mouth because it was hollow. She was embarrassed to have no teeth. Her dentures lay in a bedside drawer since they no longer fit her. She had been given nothing but minced and pureed food for four months. She ate all meals beside her bed, ashamed to eat in front of others. She had no family or friend to advocate for her. On her behalf I spoke to the administrator. Two weeks later I saw that same elderly lady in the dining room, dentures in her mouth, eating real food and happily socializing with other residents. That is the kind of job that ombuds volunteers do – intervene to improve the quality of life of vulnerable people who may have no one to speak up for them.
Our country is experiencing a demographic shift. The number of frail older adults who will have severe functional limitations will more than double by 2040 according to a Robert Woods Johnson Foundation study. Let’s get the jump on this problem before it overwhelms our state resources and those seniors who have contributed to making this a great place to work and to retire.
Our legislators are meeting in Olympia. Please call the toll-free Olympia legislative hotline – 1-800-562-6000 – and ask the operator to tell your district senator and two representatives to increase the ombuds budget by $1 million for 2015 and 2016 to have the resources to train and supervise 150 new ombuds and attain a goal of making regular visits to 82% of Washingtonians in all types of long-term care facilities. You don’t even have to know your legislative district or who your elected officials are. Just tell the hotline operator your name and address. They will very helpfully do the rest. Make this 5-minute effort to ensure that fellow citizens who can no longer age at home get the best possible care in our long-term facilities.
John Barnett is an ombuds volunteer living in Kirkland.