Volunteering is a Win-Win

It’s been two years since the COVID deadly outbreak. No population was more harmed by the pandemic than residents and staff of long term care, accounting for between 35 – 40 percent of all deaths. Data is showing more than 75 percent of deaths nationwide are people over 65, including one in ten nursing home residents. Here in Federal Way, there are 119 long term care facilities, home to more than 1,500 residents. Many of these homes are smaller private adult family homes of six residents or less where they are more isolated than in a larger nursing home.

Residents of long term care homes continue to be subject to a twin pandemic of COVID infection and prolonged isolation – which itself is causing decline in physical, emotional health and even death.

Chronic staffing shortages are exacerbating the need for trained resident advocates

Covid isn’t the only killer out there. Omicron may be in retreat, but unfortunately the threat of poor quality care and the harm of isolation for residents in long term care are not. The staffing crisis in long term care facilities may well be the bigger threat to the wellbeing of residents.

Visitation from family, friends and independent advocates like volunteer Ombuds literally saves lives, and is critical to honoring residents’ rights to autonomy, quality care, and dignity.

What is a long term care Ombuds?

The Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is an independent organization that advocates for the rights of residents living in long term care homes. The program depends on local citizen volunteers in every community who are trained to visit, resolve complaints, and advocate for the rights of residents. “Ombudsman” is a Swedish word which means “to advocate for another.” In Washington we use the terminology “ombuds.”

Ombuds are trained and certified to identify and address potential neglect, abuse, improper eviction or retaliation that residents may be experiencing, and ensure their right to quality care and visitation is protected. Volunteers check on residents to see how they are doing and if they have concerns, questions or needs. Ombuds serve as the voice for residents who too often don’t have one.

Ombuds resolve over 90 percent of the complaints received, reduce the need for costly government or legal interventions, and provide critical support to ensure the quality of care and the rights of residents are being upheld.

Common violations of resident rights and complaints that Ombuds address include:

  • Involuntary discharge/eviction
  • Lack of personal dignity and respect
  • Slow or no response to request for assistance
  • Issues with medications
  • Issues related to hygiene
  • Civil rights and billing issues

During the pandemic, the Ombuds program delivered 1,060 electronic tablets to adult family homes across the state for residents to have virtual visits with loved ones, entertainment and online consultations with doctors. Volunteers personally wrote and delivered thousands of postcards to residents to let me know we’re still there for them.

Pamela Williams, King County Regional Long Term Care Ombuds, reflected on the critical role program volunteers play: “I saw firsthand the meaning of dedication and understanding from volunteers working with vulnerable adults in long-term care. The thoughtfulness and passion from our volunteers help to ensure quality care for seniors living in long-term care facilities. Our volunteers give the gift of compassion and concern for a special slice of humanity.”

Call for community volunteers

Now with protective measures in place, the Washington State LTC Ombudsman Program has an urgent need for volunteers in every community. Ombuds volunteers genuinely enjoy their work, and report one of the things they like best about their role is the social connections they make with other volunteers and folks in their community.

Marilyn Harrelson has lived in Federal Way with her family since 1989. When Harrelson recently retired as a school teacher, she became a volunteer ombuds. Says Harrelson, “Residents are so grateful to have someone to talk to. Some folks have very supportive families, but others are very much on their own. It’s very satisfying to know you’re helping people make their living situation better, opening lines of communication and helping residents understand they still have their rights.”

Community members interested in volunteering with the Long Term Care Ombudsman program can find out more by visiting www.waombudsman.org or calling 1-800-562-6028.

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