COMPASSIONATE CARE — Mary Cohen, left, a local ombudsman, speaks with nursing home resident Judy Fryer, of Oneida Healthcare Extended Care Facility.

Ombudsmen volunteers ensure the ‘right to remain you’ in long-term care facilities

Published Feb 26, 2017 at 9:00am

As an independent living center, Resource Center for Independent Living’s personal motto is “You have the right to remain you.”

RCIL staff in Utica work to ensure individual rights and freedoms to individuals. RCIL offers a variety of programs, including “Open Doors” that make it possible for seniors and those living with disabilities to remain independent in the community. 

But what about those residing in local long-term care facilities that are not able to return to the community? Sometimes it is necessary for an individual to live in a nursing home or assisted living facility. The nursing home is home to many throughout the region.

At RCIL, residents living in facilities deserve dignity, respect and to maintain the power of personal choice, said Krystal Wheatley, senior coordinator of RCIL’s NYS Long Term Care Ombudsman Program. 

Navigating the long-term care setting can be tricky for residents and their loved ones, she said. Many are unsure of the transition and are not well informed of their rights residing in a nursing home.

RCIL provides consult for those with nursing home inquiries through its state Long Term Care Ombudsman Program. The local Ombudsman Program provides a presence in more than 50 long-term care facilities and serves Oneida, Herkimer, Otsego and Madison counties consisting of 5,000 residents. The Ombudsman Program is often a voice for residents who are unable to advocate for themselves. 

Exemplary volunteer spirit is the livelihood of the local Ombudsman Program. The program relies on a strong group of state-certified volunteers and coordinators to educate, investigate and resolve resident-related concerns within local nursing home facilities. All volunteers undergo a vetting process and a state certification course prior to becoming a state ombudsman.  

The unique volunteer experience requires a professional and committed individual. Ombudsmen provide a regular presence in their assigned nursing home. Ombudsmen work to educate, empower and advocate on behalf of the residents. They put forth effort to promote quality of life and quality care for the residents they serve.

Fiona Dejardin, ombudsman in Otsego County, claims her role can be complex at times, but she enjoys the problem-solving and helping residents resolve their concerns with the facility. The highlight of her role as an ombudsman volunteer is getting to know the residents.

“They have led very rich lives and I am honored to be able to make a contribution to their last chapter. I have so much respect for them,” Dejardin said. She said she believes the experience has opened her eyes to the problems of elder care. In the future, Dejardin said she would like to become more of an activist for issues impacting the elderly living in facilities.

Ten-year ombudsman veteran Tom Talbot of Oneida County spends his time advocating for the residents.

When asked what keeps him so actively involved in the volunteer program, he said, “Far and away, the residents. They are the ones we serve and they keep us going.” 

Talbot and other ombudsmen also work to raise awareness of the Personal Needs Allowance (PNA) through letter writing campaigns and other mechanisms. The PNA is a budget of $50 per month allocated to nursing home residents.

This minimal monthly allowance allocated to elderly and other long-term care residents has remained stagnant since 1981. Many believe this amount is inadequate for a monthly allowance in 2017 and leaves many nursing home residents with little quality of life. 

Whether it be consulting, advocating, empowering, educating or investigating, the presence of an ombudsman makes a difference in our local nursing homes, Wheatley said.

“People residing in nursing homes are guaranteed more dignity, respect and rights than those fortunate enough to live in the community. It’s about time we raise awareness of that. The nursing home is their home after all,” she said. 

Those interested in more information on the Ombudsman Program, or to become an ombudsman at RCIL’s next state certification training this April, call RCIL at (315) 272-1872 or (315) 272-1873. 

RCIL is a local organization providing resources, information and tailored advocacy for individuals in need.