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Age of service: Edith McNinch, 91, volunteers with ombudsman program to help senior citizens

Edith McNinch never let age be a limit. When she was 52, she started a 21-year career as a kindergarten teacher.

Now 91, she’s often much older than most of the residents she serves as a volunteer advocate at an assisted-living facility in Colville.

Holding the role for 16 years, McNinch is with the Eastern Washington Long Term Care Ombudsman Program. Twice a week, she visits residents at Parkview Senior Living Center to hear their stories and concerns.

McNinch will try to mitigate those concerns, which might be food preferences or supply needs. An ombudsman also watches out for any potential abuses. She began volunteering at Parkview soon after she retired.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ ” McNinch said. At that time, she saw an article in The Spokesman-Review about the SNAP-operated ombudsman program’s continuing need for volunteers to cover a five-county region.

“I saw this article about being an ombudsman, and my son Mike encouraged me,” she said. “We were then at Northport, a town close to the Canadian border.”

She and her husband Cecil, a retired Northport coach and teacher, have since moved just outside Colville. To complete her ombudsman training, McNinch stayed with a friend in Spokane for a couple of weeks.

After working early on with a mentor in Stevens County, McNinch started immediately at Parkview and stayed. “I was really lucky I got this one,” she said.

McNinch and her husband have six kids in their blended family. Once all the children were out of the home, McNinch at age 45 decided to return to school – first at Spokane Community College in a program that required a twice-weekly commute. Again, she stayed with a friend.

“It took three years to get a two-year degree,” said McNinch, who then went to Eastern Washington University, where she earned her education degree to teach in Northport.

“Kindergarten wasn’t what I planned,” she said. “My mother had taught second grade. After my kids got older, I went to help her. I thought when I go back to school, I’ll teach second grade also, but there were no openings after I got my degree, only kindergarten.

“It turned out to be the most wonderful experience. They have no bad preconceptions and are open and free to learning.”

As an ombudsman, or what she calls an “ombuddy,” McNinch described the role as equally relevant.

“Because I’m working in an assisted-living center, often it’s good for them and it’s good for me. I’m someone who comes at least a couple times a week and visits with them.

“If they have any challenges – and that’s what an ombudsman does is to help them with those – I try to do that. It might be itsy-bitsy, but to them it’s a big problem. Sometimes they don’t feel they can go to the desk and talk to management. They can talk to me, and I can go to management.”

What she likes best about the role is hearing the stories of people’s lives.

“I’ve taped the stories if they wanted me to, so their stories are available if the families wanted them,” she added. “So many of them have such interesting lives. They lived through WWII or the Depression. Some were old enough that they talked about World War I.”

To solve issues that residents might have, she said often it’s just a matter of talking to the facility and “having a circle of three” to find a solution.

“You don’t want people to be old and sad and ignored. I could get both of the other parties together and say, ‘A needs this, or B can offer this and not that. What can we do about that?’ ”

It might be something as simple as a woman who sits in the same spot for lunch but workers forget to pull down a blind so the sun gets in her eyes. “I’d have to see that the blind gets put down.”

As another example, she said one woman felt she was gluten sensitive, so McNinch went to talk to management to make sure her food didn’t have any gluten.

“So they were buying zucchini noodles for her, I think. Those are the things that can be worked out if everybody works together.”

She’s made longtime friends and gone to funeral services at the facility when someone dies.

“I really miss them when they die or when they’re transitioned to a nursing home,” she said.

“The services might be at a family church, but they’ll usually have another service, too, at the facility because people have been around them all these years. Otherwise, you don’t have a chance to say goodbye.”

McNinch listens to residents’ fun times, as well, including day trips such as one each spring so a group can see baby animals at a nearby farm. They stop to have ice cream on the way back.

“They enjoy the drive, and you want to make their lives as pleasant as they can be. I hear a lot that they miss their car and driving, sometimes more than they miss their home.”

For about two years, McNinch hasn’t driven, either, because of an inner ear balance issue, but a friend takes her twice a week so she can still do the ombudsman work.

Most of the residents she visits are in their 80s and 90s. “There is one gal and I think she’s 103 and still really sharp.

“I always go at lunchtime so I can see everybody. Then if there are new people when I come in, I go and visit them as soon as I know they’re there. It’s a lovely place as far as the facility, and the caregivers are always so good. They give really good care.”

One resident has lived at Parkview for as long as McNinch has volunteered, but she’s the only one. McNinch plans to continue as an ombudsman for as long as possible.

“I think it’s good for people who are residents in assisted living,” she said. “Some don’t have any family, or their families are far away. It’s important to have people to visit with, and it’s important for families to come if they can.

“I’ll do it as long as I can. My plan for a long time is to live to be 100 in good shape, so I’m working on that.”

Contact the writer:

(509) 459-5439

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