Watching out for those who have no one else

Memories of lonely patients who had no one to intercede on their behalf prompted one local man to become a volunteer for a state program that protects the rights of the elderly.

"In the early '90s, my grandfather was in a nursing home and we didn't like the care he was receiving," recalled Jack Patterson of Medford. "Luckily, he had a lot of family looking out for him. But I started thinking about the ones who didn't have anyone."

Patterson, 63, enrolled in training at the state Office of the Long Term Care Ombudsman program in 2004. He is now one of Jackson County's six volunteer certified ombudsmen.

Four years later, the retired schoolteacher is an advocate for patients at the nursing home that once cared for his grandfather. But with new owners and new guarantees of patients' rights, conditions are "one hundred times better," Patterson said.

"Most of the time it's nothing earthshaking," he said. "It's just the little help you can give people that help make their life a little better."

Oregon has 30,000 residents living in nursing homes, adult foster care homes, residential care facilities and assisted-living facilities . They all deserve quality care, said Kathy Walter, director of the Office of the Long Term Care Ombudsman.

There are four full-time paid staff members, and each is responsible for 35 to 40 volunteers, Walter said.

"Residents have the right to be treated with respect, dignity and as autonomously as possible," she said. "They don't give up their civil rights when they move into one of these facilities."

Volunteers research complaints and provide advisory information to both the patients and the care facilities. Walter said common concerns are about resident care: Are the call lights being answered? Is the hygiene good? Is the food edible, on time and nutritious?

"Our job is to make sure they're doing their job. How we work is by gathering facts, knowing the laws and the rules, being persistent and being persuasive," said Walter.

The ombudsman program is not a licensing or regulatory agency. But when diplomacy fails, "then we refer to the state licensing agency," said Walter.

Most caregivers want to give quality care and are very receptive to the ombudsman volunteers, said Walter.

"Ninety percent have a positive outcome," said Walter.

Many residents of long-term care facilities believe they are at the mercy of whatever decisions are made on their behalf, Patterson said.

"A lot of elderly people don't want to make a fuss," he said. "They're afraid they'll be asked to leave."

Newly minted ombudsmen Mike and Sue Sullivan are fighting to protect one client from that very situation, they said.

The Sullivans said their 30 hours of "intensive legal training" is being put to the test over a client they say is being asked to move against her will.

"Most ombudsmen wouldn't see a case like this in their entire (volunteer) lifetime," said Mike Sullivan. "All of our (volunteer) hours have been involved in this very complicated case."

In spite of landing headlong into a challenging situation, the couple said they are dedicated to the ombudsman program. "I think this is going to be really fulfilling for both of us," Sue Sullivan said.

The two are parents of a blended family and have eight children between them. A far cry from the lonely statistics of many of their clients, they said.

"Sixty percent of these patients never get a visitor," said Mike Sullivan. "If nobody's visiting, who's really looking out for them?"

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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