Two years ago, I answered a newspaper ad seeking volunteers to become long term care ombudsmen. And this was the start of a poignant educational and emotional odyssey of a magnitude that I hadn’t anticipated, leading to one of the most rewarding endeavors of my life.
With my education and experience I thought I’d be a good fit for the ombudsman program. During my time with the SFPD I had often worked with victims that were especially vulnerable due to their age. And recently I helped an elderly friend remain independent in her apartment where she had lived for more than fifty years. I have come to believe that any person who enjoys helping people would make a fine ombudsman.
As a police station captain, I was all too often disheartened by reports of crimes perpetrated against the elderly. Such haunting cases as I had seen over the years have never reconciled with my sense of humanity. I recall that in February of 2011, in a long-term care facility, someone stole a 1942 World Series ring off the finger of the winner of that ring, a sleeping 90-year-old. Truth be told, once in a while I look back on this case and muse over ways of catching the villain.
So, what exactly is a long term care ombudsman? We are advocates for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. We endeavor to improve the quality of life and quality of care of people living in such facilities. Ombudsmen investigate and resolve complaints made by, or on behalf of, residents in long-term care facilities. Issues that ombudsmen confront include financial abuse, emotional and physical neglect and abuse. Ombudsmen help people.
One of my first encounters as an ombudsman was with a decorated WW2 veteran during the last weeks of his life. He was content with his life, and satisfied with the care he was receiving. I shook hands with him and he remarked that my hands were quite warm. He asked if we could just hold hands for a bit. When I later asked if I could assist him in any other way, he said it would be nice to have “two fingers of Scotch whisky.” Other folks sought guidance with financial concerns and eviction threats.
I have learned a great deal about provisions in our culture for elder care and have discerned common patterns about how folks arrive in long-term care. Often a fall or lingering illness results in a stay in a hospital, and upon release a person cannot return to independent living. This can result in a brief stay in a skilled nursing facility, followed by an often hurried, and sometimes unsettling, transition to long-term care. Folks can alter this pattern. Specifically, getting a bit of in-home help while still living independently can reduce the risk of illness or injury, and thus avoid a trip to the hospital. The key is to add support in a timely manner—as it’s needed. Old age is not a sickness; it just means that a person may need some help from time to time. It is so important for a person’s health and longevity to have a network of social contacts, and within this network to have people you can call on to help with both the urgent and the mundane puzzles that life presents.
The safety net for seniors is much more limited than I had ever thought. It’s mostly the very wealthy and very poor that have options, and not always the options that they would find acceptable; long-term care insurance can give folks more options, but such coverage can be difficult to obtain and can be costly. Without advanced planning a person can move very quickly from independence to an institutional setting they might find unsatisfactory. The resulting loss of control over events in their lives can be devastating.
By being an ombudsman I have deepened my capacity to experience the predicaments and difficulties of others, and recognize that accompanying a person on a sometimes trying journey is both rewarding and challenging. My experiences as an ombudsman have been interesting, delightful and, sometimes, troubling. However, there are few words that can convey the great honor it has been to help folks living in long-term care facilities.
To become an ombudsman please contact Julie Schneider at (415) 751-9788 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Lyons Corriea is a fourth generation San Franciscan, a retired San Francisco Police Department Commander and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.