Amy Gehrig’s job might be a little easier if they called it something else; but the term ‘ombudsman’ is unfortunately here to stay.
It’s a Swedish word that means “citizen advocate,” and that’s who Gehrig needs in Essex County: concerned volunteers who can advocate for elderly people who may not have a voice of their own.
“We are looking for top-notch volunteers, people who are willing to commit to two to four hours a week, going into a long-term care facility and visiting and advocating for residents rights,” she said. “It’s making that difference in someone’s life, in making that moment a happier moment for them. That’s the biggest reward of this program.”
The ombudsman program is a national program, which is run independently by each state, but coordinated locally. Gehrig is the coordinator for Essex and Clinton counties, operating through the North Country Center for Independence. She oversees 23 facilities in Essex and Clinton counties for all levels of care, from nursing homes, to assisted living facilities to family-type homes.
Gehrig currently has one volunteer for all of Essex County.
“It’s not just going in and visiting with residents, it’s investigating. If you’re into investigations and getting to the bottom of things and fact-finding, then this is the perfect job for you. It’s very rewarding.”
The time commitment, she says, is very flexible, with volunteers setting their own schedule for the week.
More then just getting new volunteers, Gehrig hopes to get the word out about what the ombudsman program is, and who it helps.
An ombudsman isn’t hired by the facility, she says, and in fact has the power to investigate a client’s records if asked by the client. A large part of the job is negotiating on behalf of the client if there’s a conflict or a problem. They might be contacted by a resident of the facility, or very often by a family member of that resident. A facility does not have the right to deny an ombudsman entrance to a facility.
“The bottom line is, this is their residence, and everyone needs to remember that,” Gehrig said. “It is critical that they have rights, they have the option to have a meal they enjoy, or having hot coffee when they want it, that when they ring the bell to go to the bathroom that someone comes in a decent amount of time. We are there to ensure that they have those basic rights.”
There is a four-day training session upcoming for those interested in volunteering. It will be held Sept. 3 - 6, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Those interested in either Essex or Clinton County can contact Gehrig at 563-9058.