By Debbie Shapiro
With their manicured lawns and luxurious lobbies, elder care communities are the picture of retirement leisure, comfort, and safety. They offer daily activity calendars, meals served in elegant dining rooms and medications distributed as prescribed.
Florida has the largest elder population in the nation with 5.9 million residents over 60 years of age. Our state is also home to the fastest-growing population of seniors 65 and older. But as a result of the current labor shortage, assisted living, memory care and nursing home residents often suffer through inconsistent care and food preparation.
Problems can be as serious as making errors with medication, not taking residents to doctor appointments, or failing to provide proper supervision in a memory care unit. Or they can be simple, like not changing a light bulb, restoring cable or establishing phone service.
When something goes wrong and residents need help, they often don’t know where to turn. And that is when the Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program steps in to help out. Its purpose is to protect the health, safety, welfare and rights of seniors – and to do so free of charge. When contacted by a resident or family member, an ombudsman immediately begins working to resolve the situation.
Related: What is an ombudsman?
The Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program strives to improve the lives of seniors by creating an environment where they can live and age well. Ombudsmen are a member of a statewide network of volunteers who receive many hours of field training to absorb laws and policies. They become skilled in working behind the scenes to resolve grievances and uncover systematic issues.
Many elders, family members and friends are hesitant to complain because they fear retribution. That’s why it is important to understand that an ombudsman’s work is done confidentially. When a complaint is received, the ombudsman visits the facility and requests a consent to release information so that the situation can be addressed with the administrator. If that doesn’t happen, the ombudsman interviews numerous residents to gather a variety of complaints so the administrator won’t know who called the state office.
Not only can you take advantage of this free service, you can also help out by giving back – the very agency designed to ensure that seniors are taken care of is in desperate need of volunteers! The only requirement for volunteering in the program is to care about our seniors. After learning the ropes, volunteers become certified ombudsmen. Hours are based on personal preference, and the state minimizes driving by assigning volunteers to facilities near their homes.
The work is challenging. But the work is also rewarding, and its impact can be seen in the smiles of gratitude on the faces of those who have been helped – and in the rejuvenated quality of life for our seniors. If you want more information about the Florida Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program or would like to volunteer, call (239) 338-2563 or visit ombudsman.elderaffairs.org.
Debbie Shapiro is based in Sarasota and has been a Florida state long-term care ombudsman for six years.