A look back at our progress before moving on

Dear readers, it's time to say goodbye.

I will retire next month and hand off the reins to a new Long Term Care Ombudsman. It has been a real privilege to hold this position. I've got the best staff and volunteers anyone could hope for, all of them passionate about defending the rights of older Alaskans. But the best of all has been you, the older Alaskans who show so much grit and independence in facing the daily challenges of aging.

My job is to make sure our program provides seniors with regular and timely access to ombudsmen so that anyone who needs help can get it.

When I first became the Ombudsman I didn't feel we were visiting enough homes so I challenged the staff and later the volunteers to step on the gas and get out there. They outdid themselves. Instead of the 166 facility visits they did in 2009, our ombudsmen made 476 home visits in FY 2014.

In case those numbers seem like another "ho hum" program report, I'll translate: as many as 1,500 more seniors got access to an ombudsman in person last year. I admit I'm proud of that.

Here's why those facility visits are so important to us and to you. Staff ombudsman Lisa Gowdy visited a home where the caregivers were absent, leaving residents with dementia by themselves, clearly a dangerous situation. Volunteer Penny Burt visited a home where a female resident said she was really uncomfortable being bathed by the male caregiver. Penny alerted us and we took care of it.

Ombudsmen have found homes that had almost no food, or residents who were locked into their rooms to keep them from wandering, or caregivers who had been ordered not to call 911 if there was an emergency.

None of these problems can get straightened out unless we know about them. Vulnerable seniors cannot always call us so we need to be in the homes to hear from them directly.

These visits result in a lot more complaints for ombudsmen to investigate and resolve. In fact, we now open an average of 61 cases per month, up from 14 a month in 2009. But that's good. It means we are helping many more seniors than we did four years ago.

Ombudsmen don't always win the day. I still feel frustrated at the magistrate who supported a callous guardian's decision to take away a senior's cigarettes and smoke in front of her. My staff still anguish over the case where it took us a while to figure out an administrator was exploiting and threatening residents. And I do not understand why an assisted living home should be allowed to keep animals inside who are not house-trained.

However, those cases are unusual. I can think of hundreds of other cases where ombudsmen protected residents from exploitation, poor care or bullying. It's our job and we are glad to do it.

I've shared information with you in this column for four years and it has been my pleasure to do so. It's time for me to welcome a new grandchild and spend time with family. Be well, stay active, and if you need help, call the Ombudsman!

Best, Diana.

The Alaska Long Term Ombudsman office can be reached at 334-4480 in Anchorage or 1-800-730-6393 toll-free statewide. Or visit http://www.akoltco.org.

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