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
Region II – Bergen, Passaic, Sussex & Warren
Region III – Middlesex, Mercer, Somerset, Hunterdon, Monmouth and Northern Ocean
Region IV/V – Burlington, Cumberland, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Atlantic, Cape May, and Southern Ocean
Volunteers must complete a 32 hour training program to become a certified Volunteer 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 40,000 hours in nursing homes, visiting elderly residents and advocating for residents’ rights. More than 20,000 visits have been made and approximately 5, 000 concerns resolved to the satisfaction of the residents and their families.
- One advocate came up with the idea to start a program to help 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 programs throughout the region.
- Our advocates assist long-term care residents in reaffirming their rights. The program offers an entertaining and highly effective strategy to accomplish such a task – RESIDENTS’ RIGHTS BINGO. One advocate has become a regional Residents’ Rights Bingo facilitator, playing the game in nursing homes throughout her region helping to educate and empower residents.
- 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 the “thank you’s” I receive make it all worthwhile.”
- A Volunteer Advocate receives old but functioning computers, including the monitor, tower, keyboard, and cables. All data is removed, free games are downloaded and the nursing staff of the facility sets it up. It has been successful beyond anyone’s expectations! Residents who never came out of their rooms are now playing games on the computer.
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 volunteer are needed to fill the gaps left through attrition. We need more volunteers to advocate for the elderly, keeping them independent, healthy and able to live their lives out with dignity.
The need is clearly there. If you are interested in having a direct impact on the lives of elderly citizens in nursing homes, please consider becoming a Volunteer Advocate.