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‘There to advocate’: Volunteers needed for ombuds program that serves as watchdog for Washington’s long-term care facilities

UPDATED: Fri., March 4, 2022

Want to help advocate for residents of long-term care facilities?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the state’s ombudsman program, and volunteers are needed statewide to advocate for residents of long-term care facilities.

The ombudsman program is the “first line of protection” for long-term care residents, State Ombuds Patricia Hunter said.

Not unlike the staffing shortages felt throughout the health care sector, the COVID-19 pandemic gutted the state’s ombudsman program.

From 2019 to 2021, the volunteer ombudsman corps dropped from 400 to 135.

This is in part because many volunteers are over the age of 60, Hunter said, meaning they are potentially at higher risk for complications from the virus and fearful about transmitting it to even more vulnerable residents.

Visits were stopped altogether at the beginning of the pandemic. Gradually, as the ebbs and flows of waves became normal, volunteers could go back into facilities and see what residents were experiencing.

But many volunteers did not return.

Ombuds are assigned to an adult family home or long-term care facility in order to connect with residents there and help solve problems, advocate and make living conditions better for residents.

Hunter said ombudsmen are important to ensuring the safety and quality in facilities, as volunteers talk directly to residents and facility staff in order to, ideally, prevent problems from happening, or at least help solve issues. Those can range from family disputes to the quality of care received.

Ideally, there would be an ombudsman to cover Washington’s 4,300 long-term care facilities, but the ranks are so low that Hunter is launching a large push for volunteers.

She hopes to add 200 new volunteers by July this year.

Sharon Niblock, a longtime Spokane ombuds, said the pandemic was incredibly difficult on residents at the facility she has been with since 2007.

“One resident said she felt like she’s dying of a broken heart,” Niblock said, noting the impact that the first year of the pandemic had on residents who were not allowed to have visitors in person for long stretches .

When facilities have active COVID outbreaks, ombudsmen typically do not visit in person, which means phone calls and virtual visits have become the norm.

Becoming an ombudsman requires 36 hours of training, but once a person is certified, the time commitment lessens. Volunteers are expected to be in their facilities four hours per week, getting to know residents and staff, and often family members.

To start, volunteers get to shadow another ombudsman, learn how their position works in the facility and understand how they can elevate and raise concerns from residents in facilities.

Ombudsmen are not representatives of the facility or management. Instead, they are an independent resident advocate. They cannot open a case without a resident’s permission and approval, however, and relationship-building is a big part of the job.

Long-term care facilities are licensed and inspected by state and federal agencies, but often, ombudsmen play a crucial role in identifying and solving issues in facilities before those agencies even get there, Hunter said.

The role of an ombuds requires gaining the trust of residents and care teams, Niblock said. She remembers her first months spent knocking on resident doors and just spending time with people to gain their trust.

“You have to like people,” Niblock said. “You go in with a smile on your face, you greet the staff, talk to residents, and it takes awhile to build that trust with a resident before they’ll open up to you.”

Hunter said the program has changed its curriculum and become more flexible to accommodate schedules of people who might be working or have other commitments but want to volunteer.

She said they are planning on monthly weekend trainings that would be virtual for new volunteers, as opposed to the four-day intensive trainings that volunteers like Niblock went through.

Being an ombudsman is not always easy, Hunter said. A lot of problem-solving in the facility, as well as interpersonally for residents and families, can be challenging. Ombudsmen have one another’s backs, however, and regional meetings are good places for volunteers to trade stories and tips.

For Niblock, a retired educator who has been an ombudsmen for more than a decade, the program gives her purpose.

“I am there to advocate for the residents and their families,” Niblock said.

If you’re interested in volunteering to be an ombudsman, you can find more information online at www.waombudsman.org or call (800) 562-6028.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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