Volunteers needed across King County to protect the rights wellbeing of Washingtonians living in long-term care homes

Nearly 80,000 Washingtonians live in more than 4,300 licensed long-term care facilities homes across the state – most in community-based settings like adult family and assisted living homes, others in nursing homes and other enhanced services facilities.

Over the past four years, long-term care residents have experienced a twin pandemic of COVID infection and prolonged isolation. Even without a global pandemic, many long-term care residents do not receive regular visits from family or friends, or don’t know where to turn for help solving the challenges they face. They may even experience neglect and abuse.

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 relies heavily on trained volunteers who visit, resolve complaints, and advocate for the rights of residents inside long-term care facilities.

Ombuds is a Swedish word meaning “to advocate for another.”

“We simply could not do what we do without volunteers,” explains Patricia Hunter, Washington State Long-Term Care Ombuds. “Long-Term Care Ombuds are trained to visit, resolve complaints, and advocate for the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Volunteer Ombuds assess how residents are doing, flag incidents of poor quality of care, and violations of residents’ rights, and help residents resolve complaints. Ombuds serve as a voice for people who may not feel they have one, or fear that if they complain they may be subject to retaliation.”

In a typical year, trained volunteers donate more than 45,000 hours visiting residents, addressing complaints, including reports of abuse, neglect, and substandard care. They are the eyes and ears, assessing how residents are doing. Ombuds resolve over 90 percent of the complaints received, and reduce the need for costly government or legal interventions. They 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

Marilyn Harrelson, a retired teacher in Federal Way; shared her experience as a volunteer long-term care Ombuds: “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. We speak up for residents who too often don’t feel like their voice is being heard,” Harrelson says. “Sometimes all it takes to be helpful is being a good listener, other times, we need to be creative problem solvers and mediators. ”

Research shows that volunteering has multiple health benefits, especially in older adults, including:

  • keeps you moving and thinking, providing physical and mental health benefits

  • reduces stress, anxiety, and depression

  • provides a sense of purpose, increasing life satisfaction and self-esteem and

  • builds social connections and support systems as you meet new people with shared interests

Long term care Ombuds are trained in infection control, issues in aging, mental health, dementia and disability. The certification training, provided at no cost, covers regulations, complaint investigation, interview protocols, cultural competency, advocacy, ombudsman ethics, and the rights of residents. Volunteers and staff meet monthly for continued training and support. Travel mileage is reimbursed.

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

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