Wanted: A voice for those living in nursing homes | Editorial (nj.com)

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Wanted: A voice for those living in nursing homes | Editorial (nj.com)

A state agency with a bulky name – the Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly – has a mandate that’s much easier to parse: advocating for residents of New Jersey’s 370 nursing homes.

And it relies on an army of 250 volunteers to help get the job done, stepping in when needed to report unsanitary conditions, make sure medications are administered on time, or alert staff to issues such as abuse or neglect.

Now the office, which is changing its name to the New Jersey Long Term Care Ombudsman, is looking to expand that core group.

As many as 130 more volunteers are needed to fill spots in nursing homes that don’t have a dedicated patient advocate.

The job doesn’t come with a salary, but it’s loaded with benefits – chief among them the knowledge that you’re making a difference in the lives of people at a time when they really need a voice.

“Volunteer advocates are a lifeline for many residents,” says James W. McCracken, the state ombudsman. “These committed volunteers provide friendship and companionship to elderly residents of nursing facilities. They also identify and mediate problems on the resident’s behalf.”

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Medicaid – poised for a big cut – foots the bill for some 35,000 seniors are in New Jersey nursing homes.

Be prepared for an intensive vetting process before you set foot in your first assigned facility. Volunteers must go through 32 hours of training and undergo interviews and background checks, in addition to participating in mentoring sessions.

Once you’re accepted, you will be required to visit your site at least four hours a week, rotating the day and the time – including weekends and holidays – to get a full sense of how the facility operates.

Anything from disputes between staff and residents to dangerous conditions such as medicine carts left untended or rough spots on the floor where a resident can slip and fall.

Often, it’s a matter of lending a sympathetic ear to residents when such a commodity is in short supply.

The ombudsman office, created in 1977, added the volunteer advocate component some 15 years later. Since then it has grown into one of the most robust of its kind in the country.

Program coordinator Dierdre Mraw says participants reflect the broader community, representing all walks of life and age groups.

Generally, families do all they can to keep their loved ones living in nursing homes safe and comfortable. But it’s just not possible to be at the bedside all the time, nor to be able to assess situations with a trained, objective eye.