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New Jersey Long-Term Care Ombudsman

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Volunteer Advocates

Volunteer Advocates are a reflection of the broader community. They come from all walks of life and every age group. Some Volunteer Advocates become interested in working with elderly residents as a result of their own personal experiences with aging family members. Others are retirees seeking a meaningful and rewarding way to use the skills they acquired during their working lives to benefit the larger community. To volunteer in this valuable role, call the LTCO Volunteer Advocate Program at (609) 826-5053 and by visiting the Volunteer Advocate Program webpage for more information

Karen Thompson
Karen Thompson
Interview with Volunteer Advocate Karen Thompson, Courthouse Center

Karen Thompson has spent 12 years assisting hundreds of nursing home residents as a LTCO Volunteer Advocate at Courthouse Center in Cape May.

Like most Volunteer Advocates, she deals with complaints about food, or missing items, or residents feeling disrespected or dismissed by often overworked LTC staff.

In these instances, Karen is a fierce advocate for her residents.

This should come as no surprise, because Karen dedicated her entire professional career to helping vulnerable elderly citizens; first, as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home and, later, as a home health aide.

Reflecting on her more than a decade experience as a Volunteer Advocate, some cases stand out in Karen’s memory.

A few years ago, she helped a veteran resident at Courthouse Center move to a veteran’s home. “He wanted a bed there…he would tell me this a lot,” she recalls. The management was resistant at first, but as an LTCO Volunteer Advocate, she persuaded them to fight on his behalf.

Sadly, she couldn’t be there the day he moved out: “He cried his head off when he left, because I wasn’t there to see it.”

While she missed this grateful resident’s last day, what brings her back year after year is seeing the satisfaction of residents who realize they are being taken seriously.

“When they just see me coming in the building, it makes a big difference. They get a big smile on their faces,” says Karen, herself a native of Cape May Courthouse. “They look for you. They know that you’re going to fight for them.”

In those early days, “I would sit down with the residents, talk to them and listen to their stories, learn about their life history. When they found out I was there to help them…when those problems started to get solved without retaliation from the management because of me, that’s when I started gaining their trust,” Karen says. “They all have their different characters. They know what they want and what they don’t want.” Residents know that they can confide in her. She notes that when she attends a resident council meeting, someone will tell her “I want to talk to you before you leave.”

She fields the typical complaints from residents, for instance “No one’s answering my call bell.” “I don’t like the food.” “They’re short of help.” “I missed a shower one night because the aide didn’t show up.” They mention times where a nurse would raise her voice or talk inappropriately.

Karen works with the nursing home administration to address these concerns and doubles back with the resident on subsequent visits to ensure that any fixes that are put in place are sustained.

Residents with dementia or who are non-verbal pose a special challenge. “I try to just sit there with them and smile, hold their hand, just bring them some kind of comfort. If they look upset, I’ll talk to their aide about ways to make them more comfortable. You go back and you can see that staff followed your suggestions.” Karen volunteers for the required four hours a week, but she times her visits carefully. “I don’t go at lunch; if they start talking, they’re going to stop eating.” “I love helping people who depend on you,” she explains, noting that elderly people are especially vulnerable.

One of the high points of her tenure came when a grateful son of a resident wrote a letter to Janet Khanlian, then-Volunteer Advocate Coordinator for the region including Cape May.

“There was some growing concerns I had about my Mother’s personal care. Her hair was smelling, her teeth were not being brushed…it was not until Ms. Thompson got involved that results were achieved and conditions changed,” he said.

“I am very grateful to Ms. Thompson – She spoke up for my own mother when I was fearful or reluctant!” “That meant a lot to me,” Karen says simply.
Francis (Frank) Flaherty
Francis (Frank) Flaherty
Volunteer Advocate Profile: Francis (Frank) Flaherty

Meet Advocate Francis (Frank) Flaherty. As a retired educator, Frank joined the LTCO team of volunteers after hearing a radio advertisement. “Mom always taught my brother and me, that ‘it is better to give than receive’ and I have always tried to live up to that.”

After completing training, Frank was assigned to Brookhaven Health Care Center in East Orange, NJ. With approximately 120 residents, Frank visits a minimum of four hours a week – frequently more – listening to the resident’s concerns and troubleshooting problems with the facility administration.

When Frank first began to visit Brookhaven, he observed residents in wheelchairs staring at the floor, never glancing up. He decided that he needed a way to connect with these residents. So, on those days when Frank visits Brookhaven, he makes a point to wear colorful, flamboyant socks. Now when the residents see “Socks” (a nickname given by some residents), they know that Frank has arrived.

“You can advocate for a resident, who in some cases, has nobody else. No one visits them. No one helps them with problems they may face within the nursing home. In this position, I have a tremendous amount of responsibility and I can make a lasting impact and meaningful difference in the lives of these residents – a friendly smile, extension of a hand, listening to their concerns, or sometimes just a conversation about the color of my socks that day.” Frank’s role as a Volunteer Advocate varies.

“One day when the facility was having their Resident Council meeting, the Resident Council President informed a family member that it was a closed meeting and she would have to leave. Later, that same relative asked the purpose of the meeting. After I explained, she inquired as to why family members couldn’t attend. I explained that family members had their own vehicle – Family Council. This family member asked if ‘we’ could start a Family Council. After speaking with the Administrator of Brookhaven, he welcomed the idea. With some sage advice from the Social Worker, we started.”

Also, in late 2018, when the parent company that owned Brookhaven was having financial problems in other states, Frank was tasked by the LTCO Chief of Staff to make regular visits to the facility and to report back if he identified any deterioration of service there. Frank’s reports were shared with the state regulators who were also monitoring the facility. Frank kept in regular touch with the facility management and with residents and reported back no problems during that transition period.
Eileen Comerford
Eileen Comerford
An oatmeal canister made a world of difference: Meet Volunteer Advocate Eileen Comerford
For 7½ years, Investment advisor Eileen Comerford has befriended residents at Llanfair House Care & Rehabilitation Center as a Volunteer Advocate. She’s listened to their stories and helped them address personal issues at the Wayne facility.

“Life in a nursing home can be very lonely and isolating and for some, frightening. I know it gives many people comfort to have a friend and advocate,” she says. To volunteer in this valuable role, call the LTCO Volunteer Advocate Program at (609) 826-5053 and by visiting the Volunteer Advocate Program webpage for more information.

For one talented resident, Eileen’s friendship took the form of a cardboard cylinder. Eileen tells the story: “In 2012, the year I became a volunteer advocate, I met a resident who was profoundly unhappy. She had been living in the long-term care facility for eight years and spent most days just lying in bed. While she had a number of health and mobility issues, it soon became apparent to me that she was an intelligent and creative woman who had never adjusted to life in a nursing home. When I would arrive for my visits, she would spend the first few minutes …. letting me know how angry she was. Most of the time, I would just listen. She always felt better after having the opportunity to vent.

“The resident didn't participate in activities – and had no desire to – but she did some crafts on her own. One day, I found her weaving with colorful yarn, using an improvised loom that she had fashioned out of a large styrofoam cup and bobby pins. When I asked her what she was making, she said "string bags". These were essentially small knit pouches that could hold loose change and other small items. Unfortunately, the styrofoam cups kept breaking, forcing her to start over. She was clearly frustrated and I felt very badly for her.

“When I got home that day, I looked around my home to see if I could find something that resembled a styrofoam cup but was sturdier. When I saw a Quaker Oats Oatmeal canister in my cabinet, I felt confident that this would make a durable loom. I brought the oatmeal container to the resident and she tried it out immediately. Happily, it worked beautifully!

“On my next visit, the resident greeted me with a smile and started telling me about all the string bags that she was making for the staff and other residents. Once word got around about the "string bag" lady, people were coming to her to place their orders.

“Soon, the Director of Recreation . . . offered to supply her with yarn. She also [featured her in] the facility's next monthly newsletter. The resident was thrilled and couldn't wait to show me the article when it was published,” recalls Eileen, who uses her string bag to store her stockings.

“As volunteer advocates, we see suffering that we can do little to alleviate, and that can be disheartening. Still, there is no limit to the ways in which all of us can touch the lives of residents in long-term care facilities. And it is remarkable how little it takes sometimes to spark joy in someone's life. In my situation, all it took was an empty cardboard oatmeal container,” Eileen says.

Last Updated: Monday, 03/23/20