Frank Talk Column July 31,2012 in the Santa Barbara News Press
LTC Ombudsmen to the rescue!
Our nation’s media have lately become obsessed with bullies. Consider the countless news reports and talk shows about cyber-bullies as well as docu-movies like “Bully.” Watching such programs, it’s easy to get the impression that the only victims are children or teens.
But when I recently met with Linda Hardy, program manager of the Long Term Care Ombudsman program of Santa Barbara County, I learned that frail elderly living in care facilities can be abuse victims too. Linda tells me stories of 90-year-old women in nursing homes who are verbally abused or badly neglected. It’s not unusual, she says, to fmd that an elderly man with dementia was tied down to his bed all night, even punched or doped, by facility staff because they were tired of him walking around at night.
These awful incidents don’t happen constantly, but sadly they’re not out of the ordinary either. Seniors in care facilities do sometimes get bullied and abused. But we seldom hear these stories. One reason, I suspect, is that we really don’t want to admit to ourselves that elderly in America are being bullied. More ominously, Linda tells me that most abuse incidents are never reported because the victims live in fear of retaliation if they complain. And if they have dementia, their complaints might not be believed by authorities.
If you imagine that such things couldn’t happen in picture perfect Santa Barbara, consider that our county has 152 care facilities with approximately 2,500 frail seniors in residence. The state of California is supposed to monitor the quality of care at these facilities, but budget cuts have reduced “annual” state inspections to “every five years” – and even those monitoring visits can be quick and cursory. Such gross lack of oversight and accountability is an open invitation to abuses.
Fortunately, there is a corps of volunteers – the Long Tenn Care Ombudsmen – who investigate such cases and defend the rights of seniors in residential facilities. They are ordinary individuals who have been trained and state-certified to visit skilled nursing and other care facilities. They talk to residents, assess services, investigate complaints, educate care staff about residents’ rights, and advocate for quality care. In short, LTC Ombudsmen are a voice for frail seniors who all too often are warehoused, invisible, defenseless and forced to be silent.
According to Joyce Ellen Lippman, director of our Area Agency on Aging, the key to the LTC Ombudsman program’s success is to have a regular presence in long tenn care facilities. Regular visits allow the ombudsmen to establish trusting, positive relationships with elderly residents as well as with facility staff. This enables residents to voice their grievances without fear of retaliation. It also helps facilities learn what their weaknesses and mistakes are and to take steps (without state-level intervention) to improve their quality of care.
“Our goal in the LTC Ombudsman program,” Linda Hardy explains, “is to have weekly visits at our 16 skilled nursing facilities and at least monthly visits at our 136 residential care facilities.”
However, there is one snag in achieving Linda’s goal- manpower! Barely a year ago, Santa Barbara County LTC Ombudsman Program was reinstituted, after a three year hiatus, under the auspices of our Area Agency on Aging.
Linda became the fulltime program manager just a few months ago. Already some progress has been made, as Linda says that “We have been fortunate to secure seven volunteers to visit facilities in different areas of the county.”
But the “presence” at facilities that both Linda and Joyce Ellen are hoping to achieve will require, they estimate, 25 to 30 volunteer ombudsmen – four times as many as we currently have. Clearly, we need local people to recognize the need and then step up and get involved.
According to Linda, “Volunteers are reimbursed for mileage only. They give of their time because they have seen the reality facing most long term care residents. These elderly residents usually have no family and few visitors. They are forgotten and invisible. They often are depressed, isolated and very fearful. And they feel helpless and impotent to do anything to correct problems they may be experiencing.”
Framed in these stark terms, there is a crying need to help Santa Barbara’s frail elderly in long-term care facilities. If you would like to learn more and, hopefully, sign up to be a volunteer, please contact Linda Hardy at the LTC Ombudsman office at (805) 922-1236; or contact Joyce Ellen Lippman, the director of our Area Agency on Aging at (805) 925-9554. The need is urgent and the time to act is now.