A small heart-shaped plaque hangs in Lorrena Nardi’s office. It proclaims: “Volunteers are a work of heart.”
Nardi, ombudsman coordinator for the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, knows the truth of those words firsthand.
The Alliance depends heavily on the time and talents of dedicated volunteers to ensure that those in long-term care facilities have an advocate working on their behalf.
By definition, the word “ombudsman” means “citizen representative,” and so it remains in the hands of generous and willing “citizen representatives” such as Kathy Quattrini, Bill DiPippo and Donald Stubbs to carry out the purposes of the Alliance for Better Long Term Care.
Founded in 1979, the Alliance plays an important role as a provider of mediation, advocacy, information, problem resolution and ongoing support to individuals who are receiving long-term care in one of Rhode Island’s 150 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Their stated mission is to “improve the quality of life and health care of residents of long-term care facilities, assisted living facilities and those who receive licensed health care or hospice in the home.” This mission could not be fully realized without their corps of volunteers.
Nardi has been training and overseeing volunteers for the Alliance for more than three years, following a long career as a nursing home activities director, nursing home ombudsman and volunteer training coordinator. She has seen the impact volunteers have made in the lives of residents who often have no family or representation in the facilities in which they live.
Nardi is actively seeking people who are “empathetic, diplomatic and skilled communicators” and who are willing to become a volunteer “ombudsman.”
What exactly is expected of a volunteer ombudsman?
The primary responsibility of the volunteer is to visit residents at various nursing homes and assisted living facilities and to intervene when necessary to help resolve problems. Residents who live in these facilities are frequently without family members to advocate and speak on their behalf, indeed many are even unable to speak for themselves. What these residents often need is someone to be an objective outsider who is committed to their protection and comfort, and who is willing to be their voice and sponsor. Nardi said the role of the volunteer using this metaphor.
“We [the volunteers] are there to help extinguish the ‘little fires’ before they become a big bonfire. We are there to identify residents’ concerns, to fix problems and to ensure that the residents’ rights are honored.”
One of the Alliance’s most experienced staff members, Catherine Gregora, was a volunteer for many years. Her commitment to the people she had stewardship over was steadfast and strong.
“I loved being able to meet with the residents, and in many cases, was the only visitor they ever had,” said Gregora. “I enjoyed being in a position where I could make a difference and follow up on a matter until I got positive results.”
At 82 years old, Gregora has been on the staff of the Alliance for more than 10 years, and her commitment to its mission is as sure as ever. She knows that without the volunteers, the needs of many of our state’s long-term care residents would not only be unmet, they might not ever be known.
Volunteers receive ongoing support and guidance from other volunteers and from the staff at the Ombudsman office, located in Warwick. To get started, volunteers must be screened, and then attend an extensive and informative 36-hour training program before entering the field. When a volunteer is assigned to a facility, his or her proximity to the site is taken into account so that it is both convenient and accessible. The time commitment varies according to the volunteer’s availability, but he or she should plan on committing a minimum of two to three hours per week.
Support meetings with fellow volunteers are held once a month, either in the evening or midday; both scheduled to accommodate busy schedules. At the meetings, led by Nardi, relevant and timely topics are addressed, and volunteers are given the opportunity to share observations, successes and struggles (all within strict guidelines of confidentiality). Before being sent to a facility alone, new volunteers are paired with a more experienced volunteer until he or she feels prepared to be on her own. Finally, close and constant contact with the Ombudsman Coordinator is maintained.
Kathy Quattrini, a volunteer of more than five years, chose to work with the Alliance after being inspired by the aging grandmother of a close friend and her own elderly aunts. Quattrini observed the unique struggles that these elderly loved ones endured while in a long-term care facility and noted: “There are an awful lot of grandmothers out there who need someone.” Her altruism and concern moved her to offer several hours of time each week to fulfill her responsibilities as a volunteer Ombudsman – all while juggling a full-time job. Some of the things Quattrini looks for might include whether meals are being served hot, how long it takes for staff to respond to call lights, or if the temperature of the room is comfortable. More serious violations, such as abuse or neglect, must be reported to the appropriate agency, but most of what Quattrini sees can be resolved with some effective communication, common sense and persistence.
Even though the standards for volunteers are high, there is no description of the “perfect” volunteer; in fact, different life experiences bring a rich dimension to this job. Each person’s skills and confidence will vary. Just ask longtime volunteers Bill DiPippo and Donald Stubbs. DiPippo and Stubbs each bring their own special style and personality to their work. Both men care deeply for the residents they serve and have come to know, but they couldn’t be more different.
DiPippo, a seven-year volunteer for the Alliance, frequents several facilities across his region. He does not shy from tracking down an inattentive staff until a need is met, or nagging an administrator to follow up on a resident’s complaint. He is outspoken, vocal, passionate – and effective. DiPippo may be retired from his professional life, but his work as a volunteer has kept him busy, and filled with purpose. It pains him to see the loneliness and isolation that many long-term care residents feel, and he goes out of his way to be sure they are not forgotten. It wouldn’t be unusual to see him visiting one of his many facilities on Christmas Eve – just to be sure that their residents know that someone is watching out for them.
Donald Stubbs has volunteered for 11 years since retiring from his job as a high school teacher. He is a well-known figure at the facility he is assigned to, but his style is a little more subtle than DiPippo’s. Stubbs is more inclined toward the art of persuasion, preferring to work behind-the-scenes, “speaking softly and carrying a big stick.” Over the years, he has built a strong bond and cooperative rapport with the administrators and staff at his facility. He has shown them that his goal isn’t to undermine them, but rather to be a trusted and unwavering support to their residents.
“The residents know that I am their advocate” says Stubbs. And a caring friend.
In 1988, President George Bush challenged Americans to commit themselves to a new age of volunteerism and giving back to their communities. He equated volunteers to a “thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” This call resonates today.
If you, or anyone you know, would like to be set in that star-lit sky, then contact Volunteer Coordinator Lorrena Nardi at the Alliance for Better Long Term Care. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can call 785-3340. The headquarters of the Alliance is located at 422 Post Road, Suite 204 in Warwick. Bilingual volunteers are being actively sought as well. For more information, you can also visit them on their website at www.alliancebltc.com.