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VOLUNTEERS ARE NEEDED TO ACT AS ADVOCATES FOR SENIORS

One of the first people a new resident at Briarwood Manor or Briody Health Care Facility is likely to meet is Mary Garlock.

Although she will be back every week, the retired Lockport Memorial Hospital nursing supervisor is much more than just a friendly visitor. Her laminated badge, complete with the seal of New York state, shows that Mrs. Garlock is a certified long-term-care ombudsman, with credentials provided by the state Office for the Aging.

In that role, Mrs. Garlock, and the nine other ombudsmen who cover 19 of the 22 residential facilities for the aging in the county, act as advocates, listeners and problem-solvers for the residents. "Ombudsman" is a Swedish word for a person appointed to investigate complaints and work out conflicts.

"I'm very fortunate; I have two very good facilities to go to, so my problems are small," Mrs. Garlock said. "But little problems are big problems to them (the residents). There are so many people in nursing homes who are so alone. They have been there for years and they have no one."

The Dale Association is sponsoring a training session for anyone who is interested in becoming a volunteer ombudsman in the county. After an interview, applicants must complete 36 hours of training, held from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from Sept. 22 to Oct. 8 in Cheektowaga.

Beth Ranney, director of public relations and marketing for the Dale Association, said the association sponsors the ombudsman program "as a way of serving our older adult community, because a lot of what the Dale Association does is targeted toward older adults.

Although most of the ombudsmen are retired, several from careers in nursing, "this does not mean that all people involved in the ombudsman program are all older adults," Mrs. Ranney said. "For the most part, a volunteer position like this does lend itself to people who are retired. I'm guessing too that a lot of them have had family members who are in nursing home facilities and know how important it is," she said.

That's almost exactly how Mrs. Garlock joined the program, seven years ago. "Many years ago, I was approached when this program was first started in Niagara County," she said. "I was still working and I didn't feel as if I was ready for something like this." Then her mother went to live at Briody, and Mrs. Garlock visited here there "every day or every other day" for three years, until she died in 1990.

"Shortly after she died, there was a notice in my church bulletin that they were looking for ombudsmen," she said. "I wanted something to fill the void."

Volunteers are asked to commit three hours a week to the ombudsman work, and the time she has devoted to the job is satisfying to Mrs. Garlock. "It's very rewarding that you can go in and see a smile on somebody's face, and to be able to help with whatever problem they might have."

For example, Mrs. Garlock said, one resident was not being served the two packets of sweetener he was supposed to get in his coffee or cereal. "After a couple of weeks, we got it straightened around," she said. "Food is the universal complaint about institutions," she noted, although lost clothing is also sometimes a problem.

Romaine Migliore, coordinator for the county ombudsman program, said newly trained ombudsmen select which facilities they will work in. "They would choose the one they are most comfortable with," she said. But there is no shortage of assignments. "I have several ombudsmen who cover three or four places."

Ms. Migliore accompanies each volunteer on his or her first visit to a facility, and they are usually given a tour by the
administrators.

The ombudsmen's relationship with the people who run the adult care facilities has been good, Ms. Migliore said. "They give you all the information and all the help you need."

Because he or she visits so much, "the ombudsman sees a lot," she said. "You go in and you can see the facility just as it is. Ombudsmen can go in at any time, unannounced, 24 hours a day."

Each ombudsman has the power to bring problems "to anybody -- to the head nurse, the administrator. You have the right to do that. And if they don't comply, I would make a report to the state. But the ombudsman would not necessarily do something without permission from the person they are representing."

That's where the in-depth training -- and the continuing monthly meetings to keep ombudsmen up to date on regulations and medical developments -- come in. The training is "very intensive. It covers just about everything that almost the state would look for."

With such responsibility, shouldn't the ombudsmen be paid? Ms. Migliore said she is among the people pushing for some sort of reimbursement. But "there isn't money from the state for this. We have written to our senators for this, asking to bring this to the state budget," but so far without success.

Since ombudsmen are not paid, the program attracts people who find the work is its own reward. "I am amazed at the enthusiasm and the dedication of these people," Ms. Migliore said. "These are very sensitive, very special people. I'm just really overwhelmed by them sometimes, by what they do."

To find out more about the ombudsman program or to apply for the training class, call Ms. Migliore at 433-3344.