By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Visiting with and talking to residents in nursing facilities, such as 74-year-old Sarah French, is a typical part of Natalie Radtke’s day.
Radtke, director of the Catholic Charities long-term care ombudsman program, visited French, a new resident at the Highlands Health and Rehabilitation Center, June 27 to make sure she was comfortable in her first week at the facility.
The conversation flowed easily between the two as Radtke learned that French had a son, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Radtke inquired wether French would like to decorate her room or take part in activities at the center.
This conversation lays the foundation for Radtke’s work with French and others like her.
The ombudsman program is “primarily about advocating for residents in long-term care facilities,” said Radtke during an interview after her visit with French and other residents.
“We not only visit and provide a friendly face, but also investigate concerns, make sure they are being treated fairly, being taken care of and that their rights are being upheld,” said Radtke, who leads a staff of four.
The program serves more than 115 nursing homes, family care homes and personal care homes in seven counties. With such a small staff, Radtke said, “we couldn’t do what we do without volunteers.”
The program needs about 30 to 40 volunteers to operate smoothly. Right now there are only about 15 to 20 who help regularly.
Radtke said that volunteering is a rewarding experience and an opportunity to answer the Holy Father’s call to engage in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The jubilee, which began in 2015 with the feast of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 8, will end on the feast of Christ the King on Nov. 20.
The ombudsmen program needs two types of volunteers.
- Friendly visitors — A volunteer who visits with residents. These volunteers might simply have conversations with residents, read them a book or play a game of Bingo, for example. This type volunteer requires two hours of training.
- Certified volunteer ombudsman — This volunteer visits with residents, but is also trained to investigate residents’ concerns and work to resolve them. These volunteers receive 24 hours of training, which entails studying written material at home. The study material includes information on the history of the program, the aging process, residents’ rights and how to investigate a concern. Volunteers also have the opportunity to shadow an ombudsman.
Volunteers are asked to serve at least two hours per week either during the day, in the evening or on the weekend.
Radtke said 24 hours of training may sound like a big commitment, but it’s worth it. Oftentimes, she said, elderly residents have no family members to visit them.
Shirley McCullum, a member of St. Paul Church, has been a certified volunteer ombudsman for 13 years. McCullum said “it’s the most fulfilling program” she’s ever been involved with.
Some years ago her mother-in-law experienced some difficulties in a nursing home. That experience made her aware of the need the elderly have for advocates in such situations, she said. “We really do watch over the residents. We cry when we lose one of them,” she said.
McCullum visits residents at Essex Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on a weekly basis. She’s been advocating for residents of that facility for the past six years. She feels that she and other volunteers act as a “voice” for the elderly in long-term care facilities.
Radtke noted that she too has grown close to the people she visits on a weekly basis. Many have become “like family,” she said. “It’s like visiting your aunt or grandma. It shines a little light that lets them know there’s still life after entering a facility.”
She noted that seasoned volunteers are supportive of new ones.
Back at the Highlands nursing home, French said that she’s doing well. She said she doesn’t like to complain and prefers to find solutions to her problems.
Radtke reminded her that the Catholic Charities long-term care ombudsman program is there to help her find those solutions.
For more information about volunteering visit ccclou.org or call Radtke or Beth Morgan, volunteer coordinator, at 637-9786.