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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.

Joe Cal is a long-term care ombudsman.

Joe Cal is a long-term care ombudsman.

“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. I’m involved with the training aspects. They like to bring in a couple of ombudsmen who are in assisted living and skilled nursing care to talk to the new class about what it takes to do the job.

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. You get guidance and assistance from People Inc. The state also runs programs once or twice a year to assist the ombudsmen and make sure their skills are up to snuff. 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. So the new employee training is really important so that they understanding an ombudsman has a a role. We’re not there spying on them. We’re here to help the residents.

I’ve got a really great facility, Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park. It’s detailed but kind of interesting. Somebody once said to me, “The regulations in skill nursing home are similar to a nuclear facility and it’s probably true.” You learn to understand your role and work with the resident council groups. I’m there every second Monday of the month for that. Then we have family councils and I work with that.

Typically, you report to the social services worker in the facility. ... You put in two to four hours a week and if you’re on vacation or you’re ill or need surgery, there’s always somebody back at headquarters to back you up.

You have access 24 hours but you can come different times. You do a meal time, go in the morning, in the afternoon. You mix it up, so you’ll understand what’s going on.  You don’t go around looking for trouble. You’re there to observe and listen and smell, and establish rapport. I think of it as a three-legged stool: ombudsman, family members and residents.

You’re assigned to one facility. Father Baker Manor has 160 residents. I look at the roster every month. I don’t visit everybody every day I’m there. I spend most of my time on the skilled side, but sometimes situations come up on the rehab side that you have to spend some time with, as well. You walk the building, talk with the residents and stop in and see the social worker. You eat with the residents. If you get a complaint, it’s either while you’re there or People Inc. gets a phone call.

Q. Are there folks of all backgrounds doing ombudsman work?

Typically it’s retired people or people between positions. We’ve had teachers, small business owners. The good part of this volunteering is that you’re not calling people asking for money and you can pick your hours. You can really make a difference at your facility.

Q. Who usually reaches out, the family or the residents?

It’s a little bit of both but in my experience it’s been more the family members. This certain age group, individuals don’t like to complain as much. Us baby boomers? When we get in there, we’ll be complaining all over the place (with a laugh). We do address things that come up.

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. It might be a food issue – somebody with a swallowing issue upset with a special thickening diet. 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 – what’s available and what groups can help individuals – that might allow someone to go home, as well. A few individuals qualify and we can facilitate that, too.

Q. What have they expressed thanks about in terms of the program?

Getting the right kind of care. Sometimes it’s a roommate issue. Sometimes it’s making sure a mother father is being taken care of in terms of clothing and dressing, being able to get their loved one involved in the life of a facility. Sometimes, people want to just be alone. Sometimes family members would like them to come out and be more socially involved. That happened to my father. When he first started out, he didn’t want to go anywhere, do anything. Then, all of a sudden, things just kind of kicked in. He started to see that things were really good. They had card games and different activities. The last year or so, he really got into it.

Ombudsmen can visit, too. It’s not just handling complaints. There’s not that many men in the facility, so you can go and visit and talk about cars or business. You can bring in car magazines and newspapers, talk about what’s going in around the world. You tap in to residents’ experiences and lives. There’s always stuff to talk about. ... and you see people from the community, too. I’ve seen my neighbors. My mother-in-law was at Father Baker. My son’s pre-K teacher was there for a while, my pharmacist, doctors. My old middle school basketball teammate from Kenmore was there one day in rehab.

Q. What's the best advice you’d give to a family looking for some support when it comes to assisted living or skill nursing home care for a loved one?

Make sure you do your research. Look at the state surveys and look at the facility before you place a loved one. Make sure you’ve got the right home for them.

 Q. Have you learned that volunteer work can help with your health?

Totally, and that’s a great way to look at it. When you’re working with individuals in these facilities, you give but you get so much back. You work with families and broaden your perspective on caring and helping. It gives you a sense about what you have and what you can give back.


Twitter: @BNrefresh


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