Volunteer training deadline approaches

Published 6:51 pm Friday, January 14, 2011

Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia is seeking caring men and women with good communication skills to serve as volunteer ombudsmen to help resolve complaints and mediate issues on behalf of patients and residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Feb. 11 is the deadline to sign up for the next round of free training sessions, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 14, 15 and 21 at the main offices of Senior Services in the Interstate Corporate Center, 6350 Center Drive, Building 5, Norfolk.

“Our ombudsmen advocate for better quality of care and quality of life for people in long-term care,” said Willie E. Alston Jr., ombudsman volunteer coordinator at Senior Services, a not-for-profit organization. “We could not accomplish what we do without our volunteers. We have only two paid staff for this work, but we are responsible for 35 nursing homes and 78 assisted-living facilities — that’s more than 7,000 beds — throughout South Hampton Roads.”

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Volunteers are assigned to facilities in their own city.

While volunteer ombudsmen are unpaid, “They receive great satisfaction in knowing that they’ve helped someone solve a problem and really made a difference in someone’s life and they learn new skills,” Alston said. “There are so many seniors in long-term care who don’t have family or who are unable to speak up for themselves. The ombudsmen are the ones who do that, who fill the gap.”

Volunteer ombudsmen receive free training in mediation, communication and listening skills and laws and regulations governing long-term care facilities, Alston said. The training, he said, also will feature sessions on abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, and on the role of ombudsmen and the federal and state laws that back up the work of ombudsmen.

The March 14, 15 and 21 sessions will be taught by Senior Services staff and representatives from state agencies, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and the Community Mediation Center. Volunteers must attend all three days of training.

Volunteer ombudsmen at Senior Services can come from any walk of life, but many are retirees who want to help other older adults in their communities, Alston said.

There are some general qualifications for volunteer ombudsmen, including being at least 21 years old, able to drive and available for a minimum of four hours a week during normal business hours. Volunteers are not asked to work nights or weekends.

Also, volunteer ombudsmen must not have financial interest in or be employed by a long-term care facility and must undergo a criminal background check.

Volunteers are interviewed by Senior Services staff before the training dates and commit to serving for at least one year. “It takes time to develop relationships and trust with residents and patients in long-term care facilities before they open up and share their concerns,” Alston said.

“Ombudsmen also serve as educators in that we give a lot of information to residents and patients and their families about additional services and benefits that may be available to them, or steer them to legal services if they need help with power of attorney, wills and other legal services,” Alston said.

Volunteer ombudsmen are trained what to listen for and also to observe possible problems that a resident or patient cannot put in words. Concerns can range from care issues to food.

“The ombudsman then takes the concern to the management of the facility with the expectation that the issue will be addressed and the complaint resolved,” Alston said. “By and large, most of the facilities are responsive and are willing to work with us. Most providers appreciate having another set of eyes to learn about a concern in their facility. We tell them we are all working toward the same goal — satisfaction of the resident or patient and an improved quality of life.”

To become a volunteer ombudsman, or for more information, contact Willie E. Alston Jr. at (757) 461-9481, ext. 114, or willie@ssseva.org.