The Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly was created by statute to preserve and protect the health, safety and welfare of seniors residing in long-term health care facilities in New Jersey.
The Volunteer Advocate Program was launched as a pilot project in March 1993, adding a new dimension to the Ombudsman’s mandate and establishing a visible presence within the long-term care facility structure to represent the needs and concerns of residents 60 years of age or older.
Advocates complement the investigative function of the Ombudsman’s Office by attempting to resolve quality of care and quality of life issues as close to the bedside as possible, referring complaints of abuse, neglect and exploitation for investigation.
Under the Older Americans’ Act, the Ombudsman’s Office receives a federally funded grant to administer the Volunteer Advocate Program statewide.
The state Program Coordinator manages the Volunteer Advocate Program at the state level. Five Regional Coordinators coordinate the program by region as below:
Region I – Essex, Hudson, Morris & Union Counties
Region II – Bergen, Passaic, Sussex & Warren Counties
Region III – Middlesex, Mercer, Somerset, Hunterdon, Monmouth and Northern Ocean Counties
Region IV – Burlington, Cumberland, Camden, Gloucester & Salem Counties
Region V – Atlantic, Cape May & Southern Ocean Counties
Volunteers must complete a 32 hour training program to become a certified Ombudsman Advocate. The training curriculum was developed by UMDNJ-School of Medicine and Rutgers School of Social Work and is modeled after the National Ombudsman Resource Center curriculum.
Intensive classroom instruction and additional on-site orientation is conducted by the Regional Volunteer Coordinator.
Volunteer Advocates are trained to observe the quality of services provided by the nursing home staff, such as how well residents are groomed and if their personal needs are being met.
Over the past year, volunteer advocates have donated more than 29,000 hours in nursing homes, visiting elderly residents and advocating for residents’ rights. More than 9,000 visits have been made and approximately 5,000 concerns resolved to the satisfaction of the residents and their families.
In addition to some issues involving activities of daily living that have been resolved by advocates, here are some examples of how Volunteer Advocates have helped improve the quality of life for long-term care residents:
One volunteer who visits two facilities weekly came up with the idea to start a program to help female dementia residents who are alone and have few or no visitors. She purchases old dolls at yard sales and consignment shops and refurbishes them to look like real babies for the residents to care for. This program has helped many dementia residents by giving them a reason to thrive. Because of the popularity of this initiative, advocates assigned to other facilities have requested dolls for their residents, expanding the program throughout the region.
- One volunteer who visits two facilities weekly came up with the idea to start a program to help female dementia residents who are alone and have few or no visitors. She purchases old dolls at yard sales and consignment shops and refurbishes them to look like real babies for the residents to care for. This program has helped many dementia residents by giving them a reason to thrive. Because of the popularity of this initiative, advocates assigned to other facilities have requested dolls for their residents, expanding the program throughout the region.
- One diligent volunteer, who has been with the program for more than 10 years, was able to assist in preserving residents’ rights concerning choice of physician services. When he was asked what has kept him involved so long, he replied, “As a volunteer, the rewards may be small but very meaningful. The friendships and thank you’s I receive make it all worthwhile.”
- Another volunteer sponsored a fishing trip for more than 30 residents in his facility, funding the all-day event, including transportation and lunch.
- One woman, a retired school librarian, set up a library and reading room in her facility. As part of an outreach program, she holds a monthly book discussion group for residents, with an average of 35 to 40 people in attendance. When asked what makes being a Volunteer Advocate rewarding, she said, “It’s the little victories I have for the residents, and the interaction with them that is wonderful.”
- Recently a Volunteer Advocate received an old but functioning computer, including the monitor, tower, keyboard, and cables. All of the individual’s data was removed, free games were downloaded and the nursing staff of facility set it up for the Advocate. It has been successful beyond anyone’s expectations! Residents who never came out of their rooms are out playing games on the computer. Other residents who never used a computer are playing games.
The success of the Volunteer Advocate Program is predicated on the dedication and devotion of citizens in New Jersey who willingly give back to their communities, and their ability to effectively resolve issues on behalf of the population we serve.
While we currently have more than 200 volunteers, additional volunteers are needed to fill the gaps left through attrition. We need more volunteers to care for the frail elderly, keeping them independent, healthy and able to live their lives out with dignity.