" When I was a kid, the other kids would be climbing trees and I'd be at the local nursing home talking to residents. It was my escape from a bad family situation, a place where I got praise and developed relationships. Gladys, a former Ziegfeld Girl, taught me how to wear lipstick and paint my nails. She walked tall and straight, kept her dignity until the end."
--Pam Mokler, Ombudsman volunteer
Not all 20th anniversary galas are about champagne, caviar and the buzz.
When board members of the Orange County Council on Aging gather Thursday to salute two decades of empowering the dependent elderly, the libation will be punch, the fare will be cookies and the talk will be about ombudsmen-ship.
The Council on Aging in Irvine oversees the county's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. Last year alone, the council received, verified and investigated 2,500 complaints about care in long-term facilities.
"When people ask me what I do and I tell them I'm an ombudsman, they say, 'You're a what? ' " said Sue Dresher of Anaheim Hills. "Nobody seems to know what it is. So I tell them: 'I'm a patient advocate--someone who works to make the lives of long-term care facility residents better.' "
There are 20,000 long-term care beds in Orange County. And there are only 49 ombudsmen--14 staff and 35 volunteer--to ensure that the residents of those beds are being humanely cared for.
Dresher is a paid ombudsman. She oversees board and care facilities in Anaheim, Yorba Linda and Placentia. "I started as a volunteer in 1991," she said. "I became involved because I experienced a (nursing home) abuse situation with my grandfather. I had a girlfriend who was going through the same thing with her mother.
"One day we realized that, if this is going on with both of us, some pretty awful things must be going on in the rest of the county."
What's going on--verbal and physical abuse, theft, force-feeding, neglect--is appalling.
"There are some very good homes around the county and some very bad ones," Dresher said. "And overall, I think facilities try to do a good job."
But when their efforts fall short, ombudsmen are on standby to investigate and resolve problems.
"We are the only Orange County organization who is charged with empowering our most vulnerable population," said Pam McGovern, the council's executive director. "When people read in the paper about elder abuse and neglect and wonder what's going to be done--what can be done--to make life more tolerable for our frail elderly, we're the answer."
Pam Mokler--a volunteer ombudsman-- is struggling with a family member over a resident's right to go to the hospital. "He is a stroke patient who is very alert, and his son has convinced a doctor that he is not alert--that he should not be allowed to make decisions about his health. People sometimes forget that nursing home residents still have minds."
When she was a young nursing-home volunteer, long-term care conditions were deplorable, said Mokler, 36. "It was before the Department of Aging came into existence," she said. "Residents were tied up and medicated to keep them quiet. Sometimes, as a teen, I would be put in charge of 30 patients."
Mokler concedes that long-term nursing care is difficult work. "Day in and day out, care-givers must tend patients who are incontinent, who are often argumentative and combative, who are not easy to reason with," she said.
To compound the problem, care-givers are entry-level, minimum wage earners. Some work two shifts to make ends meet.
"When you've got somebody who has put in 16 hours and a resident keeps ringing the bell, it can be trying," McGovern said. "The staff turnover rate is extremely high--over 200% per year. Just when we resolve a problem with one staff group, another one appears."
More ombudsmen are needed.
"We desperately need donations from the public to increase our staff," McGovern said. "We want to be adopted by an organization. When the building industry was strong, they were wonderful in supporting us. But now they're struggling, and so are we."
Meanwhile, Thursday night party-goers will hail the past and salute the future. "We don't have any grandiose ideas about the next 20 years. We're just going to keep on doing what we do," McGovern said. "We're the only organization in the county that goes into nursing homes unannounced on a regular basis to empower those people."
(If you have questions about placement of an elderly family member, or wish to volunteer or donate, call (714) 863-0323.)