In hundreds of nursing homes around New Jersey, a well-trained volunteer could be the first to notice a potentially dangerous situation, help elderly residents resolve issues related to care or medication, or alert state officials to larger systemic concerns.
A group of nearly 250 such individuals serves under the Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly, which has a federal mandate to advocate for seniors in long-term care facilities. These volunteers work to protect residents against situations of abuse and neglect, while also educating them about their rights and — at times — just providing a sympathetic ear.
The Garden State has some 370 nursing homes, most of which are focused on caring for elderly residents, and are primarily regulated by the state Department of Health, which licenses healthcare facilities. But the ombudsman’s office is set up to serve as a voice for the residents of these sites and, according to those involved with the program, the volunteers are a critical asset, serving as the agency’s eyes and ears on the ground.
“We could not do what we do if we didn’t have the volunteers,” said Laurie Brewer, chief of staff to the ombudsman. “They are not an afterthought in this office. They are a critical piece of it.”
More volunteers needed
But more people are needed for this critical role; in fact, the ombudsman’s office is looking for as many as 130 more volunteers to fill spots in nursing homes that don’t currently have a dedicated patient advocate. The volunteers go through an extensive, 32-hour training, interviews, background checks, and mentoring sessions before they are assigned a site that they must visit at least four hours a week.
“Volunteer advocates are a lifeline for many residents of long-term care facilities in New Jersey,” said James W. McCracken, the state ombudsman. “These committed volunteers provide friendship and companionship to elderly residents of nursing facilities. They also identify and mediate problems on the resident’s behalf.”
Formed in 1977, the office, which is in the process of changing its name to the New Jersey Long Term Care Ombudsman, operates a tip line for concerns about elder abuse and has a staff of 10 investigators who can be dispatched to investigate complaints. Last year, the office initiated nearly 3,000 investigations at the request of residents; it also refers criminal matters to the police immediately (something that is now codified in law) and alerts other state agencies about licensing or regulatory concerns in their jurisdiction.
The volunteer advocate program was added in 1993 and has grown significantly in the past five years, with more than 100 new recruits. It is one of the largest volunteer programs in state government and among the most robust such programs of its kind nationwide. While ombudsman offices in some other states, including New York, use volunteers in this way, others depend on smaller teams of staff to do the job, or outsource the assignment to nonprofit groups like AARP, officials said.
Deirdre Mraw, who coordinates the volunteer program in New Jersey, said it attracts a diverse group of people, many of whom are retired, and most of whom served their communities in one way or another for years: as first responders, PTA members, or church leaders. A significant number have also experienced what it is like to have a loved one living in a nursing home. (Trainers are careful to weed out personal agendas and not place volunteers at facilities where they might have a conflict of interest, she noted.)
The “volunteer advocates are a reflection of the broader community. They come from all walks of life and every age group,” Mraw said, noting that with the number of elderly people living in long-term care growing, the need for these volunteers is even more critical. (Those interested, and over age 21, can contact her directly at Deirdre.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-826-5053.)
“It’s a wonderful volunteer job,” explained Jerry DeBenedette, who has volunteered at an Essex County nursing home for two decades. One benefit is the flexible hours, he said, noting that the office encourages volunteers to visit their assigned facility on different days and times, including weekends and holidays, in order to truly judge its operation.
The other benefit, DeBenedette said, is the knowledge he’s gained about long-term care, and how it has allowed him to help advise friends and family who have asked for input. “I’ve found I’m a resource person for others,” the former insurance executive said.
The problems he encounters have varied, but generally involve issues that can be resolved by bridging a communications gap between management and residents, he said. He has alerted leaders at the home to unsanitary conditions — an exposed linen cart — helped resolve a patient’s confusion regarding certain medication, and made sure a resident was reimbursed when money went missing from his account. More often, the issues involve glitches in basic personal care routines — a missed meal, or a skipped shave — that may just require tracking down an aide.
Generally, management at his facility has been helpful and receptive to the concerns he raised, he said, although not all sites are the same. “It’s not my job to make them like me,” DeBenedette said. “I tell people in training, ‘You have to be ready for some pushback,” from staff, who have limited resources. “But those are their problems, not mine,” he added, noting his role is to look out for the residents.
While the job is deeply rewarding, it does have its drawbacks, he said. “It’s sad to see someone over the years get really, really sick and move into hospice,” DeBenedette noted. “But it is a very meaningful job.”