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Volunteer fosters communication at skilled nursing facilities

Joe Cal knows the challenges that come when a parent slows down to the point of needing skilled nursing care. He arranged to move his father, Stanley, from a house in Olean into Autumn View Health Care Facility in Hamburg, closer to Cal’s Orchard Park home, during the mid-1990s.

“You learn you can work through the problems a little bit easier if you understand how to deal with them and don’t get upset or irate,” said Cal, 69, a retired National Fuel Gas manager who volunteers as part of the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program.

The federally funded effort was administered in Western New York for more than a decade by the American Red Cross; People Inc. took on the role late last year. The agency seeks more folks like Cal, who spends two to four hours a week at Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park. Ombudsman training teaches others willing to help improve communication between families, residents and staff in assisted living and skilled nursing centers, with the goal of improving what can be a challenging environment for all. Those who want to help should call 817-9222.

Q. What is the training like?

They bring in individuals to work with you on understanding the program and what it takes in terms of protecting the residents’ rights, learning to be an advocate, communication skills, problem solving and understanding the aging process. Familiarizing yourself with community resources. Understanding the responsibilities of regulatory agencies.

Q. What’s the volunteer work like?

We serve four counties: Erie, Niagara, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua. After they train you, you go out with a mentor for three or four weeks and learn the skills that are necessary to be a mediator, advocate and listener. I take it upon myself to train the new (skilled nursing) employees once a month so that they know what an ombudsman is. It helps me because when I go around the floor, they know who I am. ... I always ask them, “What does Joe need to know,” and they bring issues to me and we try to head off any problems or concerns they have. We’re not there spying on them. We’re here to help the residents.

Q. What are common concerns that residents or families share with an ombudsman?

It could be anything: clothing, hearing aid damage, challenges with eyeglasses. Going to a podiatrist or dental appointment. Sometimes it’s a roommate issue. Sometimes, family members are concerned their loved one isn’t getting the therapy they need. Sometimes it’s a medication issue. I pride myself with connecting families to agencies that might allow someone to go home, as well.

– Scott Scanlon