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Ombudsmen advocate for those in skilled nursing, assisted living, and adult family homes

Vancouver woman has been volunteering with group for 10 years

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
5 Photos
Ombudsman Joan McConnell, from left, Wilfred Lirette Jr. and Henry Cayton speak about the ombudsman program at an adult family home in Vancouver. McConnell started volunteering with the program about a decade ago. The program is in need of more volunteers.
Ombudsman Joan McConnell, from left, Wilfred Lirette Jr. and Henry Cayton speak about the ombudsman program at an adult family home in Vancouver. McConnell started volunteering with the program about a decade ago. The program is in need of more volunteers. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Joan McConnell likes to joke that the first three months of her retirement were spent sleeping.

After having to wake up around 4 a.m. on workdays for her commute to a federal services job in Portland, catching up on sleep was necessary. Then, shortly after her hibernation period, a card arrived in the mail, asking: “Wouldn’t you like to be an advocate for seniors?”

“And I thought ‘no,’ ” she jokes now.

That was about a decade ago. McConnell, 70, actually looked into the card, discovering the Southwest Washington Regional Long Term Care Ombudsman Program, which has volunteers who advocate on behalf of more than 6,000 residents living in skilled nursing, assisted living, and adult family homes in Clark, Cowlitz, Klickitat, Skamania and Wahkiakum counties.

The local program currently has 28 volunteers, and would like the number to rise to at least 35, according to Southwest Washington Regional Long Term Care Ombudsman Neil Degerstedt.

McConnell has volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, with Meals on Wheels and with her neighborhood association in Countryside Woods. So she was intrigued by the program, and decided to join.

You Can Help

 If you are interested in volunteering for the Regional Long Term Care Ombudsman Program, there will be four-day volunteer certification training Sept. 28 and Oct. 1 through 3. The deadline for applications is Sept. 7. Contact Neil Degerstedt at 360-992-4076 or Degernd@dshs.wa.gov with questions.

Over about 10 years, she’s volunteered more than 2,130 hours to the program, assisting residents in resolving issues related to resident rights, quality of life and quality of care, Degerstedt said.

McConnell works with about 40 different adult family homes, usually visiting about six homes over one day each week. Her total time commitment with the program is around four hours a week, which is something McConnell enjoys about the program. There is training and shadowing before one can volunteer, and the gig comes with paperwork at times, but McConnell considers it relatively stress-free.

“You’re your own master,” McConnell says. “All the other volunteer programs I’ve had, you’ve had to be at a certain place at a certain time to fit the needs. This fits into my schedule.”

McConnell mainly visits residents and gets to know them. But her purpose is to be an advocate if any of her residents feel that their rights are being violated. McConnell said many residents don’t realize they, essentially, have the same rights in their nursing, assisted living or adult family homes that they would have at their home.

McConnell recently visited a woman who said her caregivers were feeding her too much and being too pushy about having her eat the food. McConnell told the woman how much she ate was her right. It’s part advocacy, part empowerment.

McConnell also helped a man who wanted a cup of coffee each day at 2 p.m. She brought the homeowner and a caregiver in, and explained the man’s request. They easily obliged. McConnell said that’s how most of her advocacy goes. She mentioned many residents are afraid to ask for even small requests, thinking it might cause trouble.

“That’s a little thing, but to him it was quality of life,” McConnell says of the coffee. “We do the big and the little.”

There can be a certain sadness that accompanies the job if a resident dies, McConnell said. She remembers the woman who raised 11 kids mostly by herself while her husband worked oil rig fields for months at a time.

And she remembers the woman who loved to dance with her husband. Then her husband died, so she kept dancing without him. Then she suffered a stroke, and couldn’t dance anymore.

Even with occasional sadness, McConnell recommends volunteering.

“We’re all going down the same road to the same place,” McConnell says. “Some are going to get there quicker and more immediate than others. But if I’m in a home I want someone with another set of eyes and ears to check up on me and my fellow inhabitants and the owners to make sure we’re getting good care and good food. This is an easy way to pay it forward.”

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Columbian staff writer