Sometimes a listening ear and a watchful eye can make all the difference.
For volunteers with SNAP’s Eastern Washington Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, the attentive approach is a priority when advocating for residents of long-term care facilities across Spokane County and four surrounding counties.
From dehydration to medication issues to family conflicts, volunteers mediate resident concerns, working with facility administration and social workers. Issues that require further intervention are referred to organizations like Adult Protective Services and Residential Care Services.
The Older Americans Act stipulates that every state facilitate a Long Term Care Ombudsman (LTCO) program. The Eastern Washington office is one of 13 throughout the Evergreen state. In 2016, SNAP volunteer ombudsmen provided 2,073 facility visits and 1,262 consultations while contributing 4,391 volunteer hours. There were 278 closed complaints with 76 percent resolved or partially resolved.
SNAP facilitates the program with three staff who work out of the agency’s Mission Support Center in Spokane. There are currently around 40 volunteers. Along with other funding sources, Community Services Block Grants (CSBG) provide critical support for the program in areas like staffing, technology, training, events and more.
“There hasn’t been a year go by where we haven’t needed CSBG funds for this program,” said SNAP Chief Operating Officer Lucy Lepinski. “They’re very important.”
Sharon Niblock first heard about the LTCO program when her mother was living at a retirement facility. She enlisted SNAP for support and eventually moved her mom to a more suitable location.
“I really believe in this program,” said Niblock, a retired teacher who began volunteering with LTCO in 2007. “I like the challenge of getting issues resolved. The people I work with have taught me how to grow old gracefully. They’re thanking me and I should be thanking them.”
Like her fellow volunteers, Niblock has become a trusted champion of residents, many of whom have few, if any, friends or family nearby. Volunteers are asked to stay with the program for a minimum of a year and put in at least 4.5 hours a week. SNAP provides ongoing support, training and mileage compensation. Volunteers are typically placed with a facility that is near their home.
“It gives me a purpose,” Niblock said. “Everyone needs a purpose. I don’t want to just sit at home all day. I can relate to the residents and the families. You learn how to ask the right questions and inform them of their rights.”
The program has a presence in close to 300 facilities in Spokane, Pend Oreille, Ferry, Stevens and Whitman counties. Volunteers also advocate for non-seniors with physical or developmental disabilities. When an issue is raised, LTCO volunteers call a meeting with the resident, a representative from the facility and a relative or guardian of the resident.
Linda Howe has been volunteering with the program for over a decade. She says the residents she supports have become like extended family.
“I like visiting these places and meeting with people,” Howe said. “Where else can you go where everyone is happy to see you? I like being able to resolve problems.”
Sometimes the advocacy can be as simple as finding a suitable mattress or making sure a resident has the right kind of reading light.
A program to raise awareness about the effects of anti-psychotic drugs was implemented through LTCO five years ago. The campaign educated residents, providers and families about rights that residents have to not be chemically restrained, to know what they’re taking, why they’re taking it and the right to refuse those drugs.
Mark Weller has served as an ombudsman at Guardian Angel Homes in Liberty Lake. He has enjoyed “listening to the great, old stories from residents.”
“I feel privileged to be able to listen to them,” Weller said. “I have the time to chat. I enjoy hearing about their lives and have just been impressed with what they’ve gone through and their accomplishments.”
Bill Lee, an ombudsman at Sullivan Park Assisted Living, says he donates time “as a way to give back to the community.”
“I can see how the program helps people,” Lee said.