For more information about the state's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program and volunteer opportunities: georgiaombudsman.org.
Georgia has approximately 70,000 residents living in long-term care facilities, and giving them a voice is the job of a small army of volunteers.
The state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is charged with advocating for long-term care residents, and employees investigate and work to solve complaints on their behalf. It requires regular visits to about 2,900 facilities such as nursing homes, personal care homes and other assisted living communities throughout the state. With only 50 paid staffers, the task would be nearly impossible if not for trained volunteers.
These volunteer visitors drop in regularly to talk with residents and build relationships. They come as friendly helpers. If anyone has a problem or concern with the care or facility, they are encouraged to speak with the volunteer, who will ask their permission to write down the information and pass it along to a supervisor in the ombudsman office.
“They become the eyes and ears” for us, says Mariel Sivley, volunteer coordinator for the Atlanta Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program.
The Atlanta office includes a 10-county region and is responsible for approximately 80 nursing homes and 800 personal care/assisted living communities. Each has to be visited quarterly. There are 12 volunteers, and more are needed, Sivley says.
Statewide, there are about 90 volunteers who help with the ombudsman program. Most act as ombudsman volunteer visitors, but some have received additional training and have become certified volunteer ombudsmen. These volunteers can help residents resolve their concerns.
The state is also piloting an in-between position of associate certified volunteer, which would give a little more training and responsibility than the visitor status, said State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Melanie McNeil.
Some regions have no volunteers, and in others there are so few that participants must drive great distances to visit all of the long-term care facilities.
“We need volunteers in every part of the state,” McNeil said.
Volunteers come from all walks of life. Many previously had relatives in a nursing home and saw how meaningful it was to have the visitor ombudsman come by and chat. Some regional offices use students from nearby colleges and universities. Being a volunteer ombudsman gives sociology or gerontology students an opportunity for practical experience, and also fulfills any community service requirements for their degree.
“It’s a win-win situation,” McNeil said. It builds the student’s resume, and the elderly residents “enjoy having a younger person come talk to them.”
There are no particular qualifying skills, except being responsible and consistent.
“This is not a situation where someone can come for a day and leave,” Sivley said.
Ideally, participants should make at least a one-year commitment, McNeil said. There are background checks, and possibly interviews and references just like any job applicant might expect. Volunteers are given initial and continuing training, and are mentored by staffers until they’re ready to make visits on their own.
Not everyone is a good fit.
Sometimes people want to volunteer because they’ve had bad experiences with long-term residential care of relatives, McNeil said. They want to come in and straighten everything out.
But that’s not the job of a volunteer ombudsman, she said. Having those interested in the program ride along with a staff ombudsman allows them to see what they’re getting into before they sign up.
“We’ve had some experience with volunteers who wanted to be regulators, but that’s not what we do,” McNeil said. “We talk with residents and ask about their experiences. Our mission is to advocate for the residents.”
It’s not the job to tell the resident what’s best for them, either, she said. While issues might come to a compromised solution, the ombudsman will always advocate for whatever the resident wants — with their permission, of course.