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Volunteers Empower Seniors To Advocate For Themselves In Long-Term Care

Volunteers Empower Seniors To Advocate For Themselves In Long-Term Care

Ombudsman volunteer and Ridgefield resident Pam Wells walks door-to-door in long-term care facilities across northern Clark County, checking in with senior residents and noting their desires.

As their advocate, Wells helps empower them to make decisions about their treatment at long-term care facilities. From medical choices to leisurely activities, she supports seniors’ rights to choose what they do and advocates for them.

“It might be somebody complaining that they’re not getting their medications when they feel they should or they’re not getting their showers,” Wells said. “These are the things they come to talk to us about.”

Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities of Southwest Washington (AAADSW) ombudsman volunteers like Wells are critical advocates at long-term care facilities, program director Neil Degerstedt said. They work to find compromises, so residents can fulfill their wishes while complying with the care facilities’ rules, regulations and staffing limitations.

“[At] a particular home or community, they’re working for the resident’s best interests. We’re working for their best wishes,” Degerstedt said. “That might be for the resident to get a slice of chocolate cake if they’re diabetic. That might include a resident who desires to get off high blood pressure medication because it’s making them feel worse than being on the medication.”

The ability for seniors to make such choices and determine their care is a human right, Degerstedt said. Ombudsman programs exist to ensure that seniors’ voices are heard.

“If a resident is living at home alone, they can make these choices themself. If they have the capacity to make their own decisions, they deserve the right to do so,” Degerstedt said.

Long-term care ombudsman programs are nationwide and work to resolve problems related to the health, safety, welfare and rights of individuals living in long-term care facilities. Each state operates its ombudsman program differently and designates representatives to serve residents, according to the Administration for Community Living website.

Volunteers frequent facilities across northern Clark County. In Battle Ground, they visit Creekside Place Memory Care, Mallard Landing Senior Assisted Living Community and Brookfield Health and Rehabilitation of Cascadia.

Ombudsman volunteers often assist residents struggling with health, loneliness and memory loss. Though a rewarding role, it’s not a position people should enter into lightly, Degerstedt said.

“This is not a volunteer position for the faint of heart,” Degerstedt said. “We’re dealing with grief, loss and trauma on a regular basis.”

Before entering a care facility, volunteers complete an extensive training program. Volunteers must also pass a background check due to the vulnerability of the residents they serve. They must also participate in yearly training to keep their skills sharp, Degerstedt said.

“It’s four full days of training in the classroom, then many, many days of going with different people in the agency to different types of facilities,” Wells said. “This is a position of trust, even if it’s volunteer.”

Wells became a volunteer after retirement. She sought a role that would benefit the community and noticed an ombudsman advertisement in an AARP magazine. Since starting as a volunteer, Wells has fostered many relationships with residents and facility workers, which she cherishes. Collaborating with long-term care facilities to help residents find happiness by having agency in their own choices is a rewarding job, Wells said.

Nearly anyone can volunteer as an ombudsman in Clark County, Degerstedt said. The program’s youngest volunteer is 26, and the oldest is 82. AAADSW’s ombudsman program currently has 25 volunteers, and Degerstedt would like the program to grow beyond 30.

“If you’re able to navigate a home and talk to residents, that’s all you really need,” Degerstedt said. “We can provide the training. We’re looking for people who are compassionate and empathetic.”

Training for ombudsman volunteers is available throughout the year, and AAADSW’s next class will be in October.

To learn more about volunteering or the availability of an ombudsman at a local lon g-term care facility, visit, or email Degerstedt at [email protected].

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