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Assisting the elderly
Ombudsman keeps eyes on long-term care facilities

By Nancy Kennedy Wednesday,
June 1, 2011 at 12:00 am (Updated: June 1, 12:01 am)

By MATTHEW BECK/Chronicle. MATTHEW BECK/Chronicle. Ginny Winkel, a long-term care ombudsman, visits with a resident of Brentwood Assisted Living Facility in Lecanto. She is one of more than 400 ombudsmen volunteers throughout the state. The program is part of the Department of Elder Affairs.

An official appointed by a government or other organization to investigate complaints against people in authority. This position is designed to give those with less power — the “little people” — a voice in the operation of large organizations.

LECANTO — On a recent Monday, Ginny Winkel arrived unannounced at Brentwood Assisted Living Facility.

As residents waited for their lunch in the dining room, Winkel went from table to table introducing herself.

“I’m Ginny Winkel,” she said. “I’m an ombudsman for the state of Florida. Have you heard of an ombudsman?”

The man she was talking to shook his head no.

“I know it’s a strange name,” she said. “What I am is an advocate for you.”


Ginny Winkel, a long-term care ombudsman, visits with a resident of Brentwood Assisted Living Facility in Lecanto. She is one of more than 400 ombudsmen volunteers throughout the state. The program is part of the Department of Elder Affairs.

* * *

In Florida, a long-term care ombudsman is a volunteer who helps improve the lives of people who live in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities or adult family care homes.

It began in 1975 as a result of the federal Older Americans Act, which established specific rights for residents in long-term care facilities.

Currently, more than 400 ombudsmen volunteer throughout the state as part of the Department of Elder Affairs.

Locally, Winkel is one of 19 certified ombudsmen who cover five counties: Citrus, Marion, Lake, Sumter and Hernando. Brentwood is one of the 186 facilities in this region.

“The ideal would be to have one volunteer for every facility,” said Helen Anderson, district ombudsman manager. “That way they could get to know the residents and visit more often.”

Anderson accompanied Winkel while she did her annual assessment. An ombudsman’s duties include making a yearly surprise visit to each facility he or she is assigned to and monthly friendly visits.

“We talk to staff; we go into residents’ rooms, check the bathrooms,” Winkel said. “We look at the window sills for roach droppings and check for offensive smells.”

Volunteers are also on call to investigate and help resolve complaints called in by residents, the most common being menu quality, quantity and variation; medication administration; and general housekeeping or cleanliness.

All calls are confidential and can be anonymous.

According to the Residents’ Bill of Rights, no resident can be deprived of any rights, benefits or privileges guaranteed by state or federal law, including the right to present a grievance without the fear of retaliation.

“Residents need to be free from (drug) or physical restraints,” Winkel said, except on orders from the resident’s physician. “You can’t tie somebody to a bed or wheelchair or give them drugs so they can’t move,” she said.

When a call is received, an ombudsman is assigned to the case within five working days. After that, the ombudsman has 90 days to resolve the complaint.

* * *

“Do you like living here?” Anderson asked a resident.

She handed the woman her business card and said, “If you ever need us, call — and you’ll get a real person to talk to.”

After visiting with the residents in the dining room, Anderson and Winkel walked around the common areas of the facility, opening refrigerators in the kitchen, taking notice that food was covered.

They checked medications stations to see if the drawers were locked. They looked to see the facility’s license was prominently posted, as were the monthly menu and activity calendar.

* * *

Winkel, 67, has been doing this for seven years and first heard about the ombudsman program when she worked in senior adult ministry at a church in Clearwater.

“I took a bus trip out West with a bunch of seniors on a retreat and the man who wrote the ‘bible’ of senior adult ministry sat next to me,” she said. “We talked and he encouraged me to get my gerontology degree (at the University of South Florida).”

In 1996, Winkel and her husband moved to Inverness, where she worked part-time as director of senior adults at First Baptist Church in Inverness.

“I grew up with my grandparents, who were a big influence in my life,” she said. “I was always very comfortable with older adults.”

As an ombudsman, Winkel said her workload varies. She has five Citrus County facilities that she covers — Citrus Health and Rehab, Avanté at Inverness, Highland Terrace, Woodland Terrace and Brentwood.

“You never know when you’ll get a call,” she said. “There are busier times than others.”

She said she loves what she does and she feels she makes a difference in residents’ quality of life.

“Plus, they’ve got such wonderful stories and so much wisdom,” she said. “I’m so amazed when they start telling us what they’ve done when they were younger. So many people don’t even know who they are.”

Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy can be reached at (352) 564-2927 or

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