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Florida's Long-Term Care Ombudsmen Program seeks more volunteers

By Kit Bradshaw
Friday, May 28, 2010

VERO BEACH — Paul Strickland, 62, would like to see more people become ombudsmen.
The Vero Beach resident is part of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, operating under the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. He is the eyes and ears of the residents of senior living facilities, helping to make sure they are well cared for and comfortable.

In Florida, all ombudsmen are volunteers, except for two or three paid staff in each of the 17 offices statewide. The program needs more people to donate their time to helping seniors.
Strickland, from western New York, taught sixth grade there, and later taught at Vero Beach Elementary School until he retired three years ago.

“After I retired, I wanted to do something useful and purposeful, even though I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so I’m limited in some ways to what I can do,” Strickland said.

There are 19 ombudsmen (and women) working from the Fort Pierce office, who visit all 128 nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and home care facilities each year in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties, assessing them for cleanliness, medical care, food service, how the staff treats and addresses each of the residents, among other things.

The ombudsmen also follow up on complaints from the residents and families, and sometimes from the staff of the facilities.

“Ombudsmen are first and foremost advocates,” said Elizabeth Davis, program spokeswoman. “We focus on residents, their needs, desires and concerns, and if a resident needs someone to speak on his or her behalf, we’ll be there to do that.

“We want to help facilities improve the quality of care they offer.”

Davis said the program saves the state about $2 million in salaries alone, and that the volunteers’ work helps avoid issues like bedsores, falls and neglect, which can cost the state millions in hospital fees.

Florida’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman program was founded in 1975 as a result of the federal Older Americans Act, which grants a special set of residents’ rights to individuals living in long-term care facilities. It operates under federal and state law.

“It can be depressing when you see elderly people who are alone and frightened and don’t have family nearby who can help them. So, whenever I can put people at ease and handle their concerns, it is important to me,” Strickland said.

“I’m there for these residents.”

Strickland said the complaints can vary, from medications that the resident feels are costing too much, to staff that don’t answer the call bells in a timely manner, or dissatisfaction with the food.

“Family members will call us to complain about the care the loved one is receiving, they are not bathed often enough or changed often enough,” Strickland said. “The first thing we do is go to the facility and let the administrator know we are there in response to a complaint.

“We get permission from the resident or from the family member who has power of attorney to look at their financial and medical records — whatever we need to see to resolve the complaint.

“In my experience, the vast majority of the facilities are cooperative and try to do their best. We can usually resolve the situation with a plan of correction.”