Share the Journey —
Ombudsman

Mary Kay Flege

Ombudsman. Unfortunately, the word doesn’t translate neatly from Swedish. About as close as I can get in English is “advocate.” But that doesn’t quite do it justice, either, so I’ll give you the nickel speech that I give to nursing homes residents and their families a couple of dozen times a day as a long-term care ombudsman with Catholic Charities of Louisville.

The Long-Term Care Ombudsman program is federally mandated in all 50 states and part of the Older Americans Act of 1968, signed into law by former President Richard Milhouse Nixon. We’ve been around a while. Catholic Charities has the contract with the state of Kentucky for the 14 counties surrounding Louisville and Elizabethtown. We serve more than 8,000 residents in 130 facilities working to protect their state and federal rights, all at no charge to them or their families.

What all this means in layman’s terms is that if a resident, family member, friend or staff person has a problem or concern and they are not getting satisfaction, they can contact the ombudsman and we’ll see if we can help. We are their personal bulldog.

The types of issues we take on go from “the coffee is always cold” to “there’s money missing from my room” to more serious and complex issues. For Miss Shirley, for example, we’ve helped her to establish a Power of Attorney, start a letter campaign to the folks in Frankfort, track down important medical records and even locate dentures that went missing during a hospital stay.

For a giant bear of a man named Fred, we helped restore his Medicaid allowance that had been wrongly docked by the state and overlooked by his facility’s business manager. Fred’s meager allowance had dropped from $40 to $14 a month and there was nothing he could do. Enter the ombudsman: we appealed the actions taken against Fred and succeeded in reinstating his full Medicaid allowance.

“No matter how many times you go to them, the ombudsmen are there for you,” Miss Shirley said. “All I have to do is say, ‘Mary Kay, I got a problem.’ And two or three days later, I don’t have a problem.”

None of the things we do is foreign to anyone who has cared for a loved one in long-term care. If that’s you, then you know that you are the outside voice for your mom, your granddad, your brother or your aunt. You’re the best person to speak up when there are problems and to teach the staff about who your loved one is and what it is they need to be comfortable and content.

Sadly, though, 64 percent of Kentucky nursing home residents do not have that person in their lives. The only non-staff person they see throughout the year is the ombudsman. And there are many, many more residents than there are ombudsmen.

Would you consider becoming a volunteer ombudsman? It’s an amazing way to change the lives of so many people who really need your kindness and caring. We provide all of your training and walk with you on this journey. If you are interested in serving with us, please call 637-9786 and ask for the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program.

“Sometimes you have people who just are at their … at the bottom … and they don’t know which way to turn, and, ombudsmen? They’ll get them started in the right direction,” Miss Shirley said. “They’re a godsend, that’s all I can say.”

Mary Kay Flege is an associate ombudsman with Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman program.

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