"If you want an experience where you continuously learn and see yourself making a difference, being a volunteer ombudsman is a great opportunity," HHS State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet said.
State long-term care ombudsman programs began across the United States as part of the Older Americans Act of 1965 with the purpose of serving vulnerable populations. These programs engage volunteers to work alongside staff ombudsmen to protect the health, safety, welfare and rights of residents of nursing and assisted living facilities.
Each volunteer is a trained and vetted community member who visits nursing or assisted living facilities to spend time with residents and help resolve concerns from cold food to not being treated with respect. Volunteers are assigned a facility they visit about 2–4 times each month so residents become familiar with them and understand they're equipped with knowledge to help.
"Every time I step into 'my' long-term care facility, I ask myself, 'What can I do today to improve the lives of the individuals who live here?'," seasoned volunteer Joyce Reid said. "Then, with every interaction I have with the residents — whether it's just to smile or to lend an ear, a brief conversation about their rights or an in-depth discussion about a concerning issue — I know I am serving a need."
A volunteer ombudsman interacts with residents by going room to room and spending time in common areas. If they notice something is amiss, such as a lack of cleanliness, or if a resident mentions their call light to alert staff is broken or seems to go unnoticed, the ombudsman will investigate with the resident's, or their guardian's, approval.
Volunteer ombudsmen are empowered to investigate issues just like staff ombudsmen since they go through the same vetting and training as staff, including a conflict of interest screening and a background check. The 36-hour training course provides on-site facility and classroom training and a 90-day internship. Each volunteer also receives 12 hours of continuing education yearly.
Volunteers work under the supervision of a staff ombudsman at one of the 28 local offices across the state. If an issue is too time-consuming or makes the volunteer ombudsman uncomfortable, they can pass on information to a staff ombudsman to work the case or they can work together. Many volunteers choose to take on cases themselves dealing with a range of issues such as discharge from the facility or advocating for dignity.
"Long-term care residents deserve respect. Each has a unique story to tell about his or her life," Reid said. "Sometimes, they may not be able to recall their life history or specific events, but there is always something, like a favorite picture on their wall or a framed photo next to their bed, that triggers a memory and prompts them to relate a story."
In order to grow Texas' program, currently the fourth largest in the United States, HHS added an initiative to the inaugural business plan Blueprint for a Healthy Texas to raise awareness.
"It takes effort, but we know many people are up for the challenge," Ducayet said. "When you see a resident smiling and thanking you for something you did, it's a great reward."
To learn more about the program, visit the Long-Term Care Ombudsman webpage.