Advocates For Those In Need . . .

by Denise Puckett

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:35

A significant part of our journey in this life is helping each other through difficult circumstances. The heart of the Gospel is compassion and mercy. One of the ways I have discovered how compassion and mercy is manifested to those who are vulnerable in our society is the ombudsman program, which is administered through Catholic Charities for our region. Essie Reilly, the Volunteer Coordinator, for the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program at Catholic Charities shared with me the value and quality it has on thousands of residents living in long-term care…

The word ombudsman is not familiar to most people. It’s derived from a Swedish term that loosely means “king’s man,” but a more relatable meaning is the term advocate. Many organizations use ombudsmen — they are problem solvers — but a long-term care ombudsman is quite unique.

Federal law mandates that every resident in long-term care has an ombudsman (advocate) to assure their state and federal rights are protected. Catholic Charities holds the contract to administer the region’s ombudsman program.

As ombudsmen, we strive to achieve the highest “quality of life” and “quality of care” for long-term residents. One of the primary roles of the LTCO (Long-Term Care Ombudsman) Program is to inform residents that they DO have rights, and if they feel their rights have been violated, we can investigate and work to resolve any concerns.

In the seven counties we serve (Jefferson and the surrounding six counties), there are almost 93 facilities and 7,950 residents. It is a daunting job for the three full-time and two part-time staff who facilitate Catholic Charities’ LTCO Program, so we rely on 25-plus volunteers to reach all the residents in our care. We engage volunteers in two ways: as “Certified Ombudsman” and “Friendly Visitors.”

A Certified Volunteer Ombudsman is a community member who completes a 24-hour certification test that qualifies them to investigate and work cases to resolution. This is the same certification that our staff holds. Friendly Visitors complete 2 hours of training and make social visits at one or two nearby facilities to which they’ve been assigned. Certified Volunteer Ombudsmen receive additional support from the district ombudsman, Natalie Brown-Radtke, and from me, Essie Reilly, the volunteer coordinator.

As the volunteer coordinator, I have a unique opportunity to help volunteers find a real passion for advocating for some of the most vulnerable individuals in our population. I have worked with volunteers from the Church and social-service agencies for decades, and without a doubt, our current group of volunteers are some of the most dedicated, well- educated, and well-trained people I have had the honor to work alongside.

Whether an issue is simple or complex, helping a resident exercise their rights is rewarding. Here’s an example of one problem that was easily resolved — but that made a big difference in quality of life. A resident mentioned to me that she was awakened every morning at 7 a.m. to have breakfast. She noted to me that after 40 years of waking up early to catch the bus by 7 a.m., she wanted a well-deserved break from getting up so early. I had a brief conversation with the staff and explained the resident’s desire to sleep in. On my next visit, at about 9:30 in the morning, I found her sipping tea and nibbling toast by the window. She reported the change was immediate.

Other times, the problems we tackle are much more serious, like when we suspect financial, physical or emotional abuse. In those instances, we work closely with Adult Protective Services, Guardianship Services, and any other support in the community that we can rally for our residents.

If you would be interested in finding out more about the program and making a real difference in the life of those in long-term care, please contact me, Essie Reilly at EReilly@archlou.org or call 502-637-9786.

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