These are not normal times, COVID has changed everything, and the stakes are very high.
Senior care workers and administrators have performed heroically, like front-line soldiers on the pandemic battlefield. We need to recognize and honor their efforts every day.
However, as in every sphere of human activity, mistakes will be made, and people will take missteps or act inappropriately. COVID's lethality for seniors simply magnifies the dangers and increases the risk for serious outcomes.
When things do go wrong, and loved ones are made more vulnerable, it is incredibly worrisome. Most of us with parents in senior care lack the knowledge and skills to address perceived problems effectively. Emotions intrude, and we are simply over our heads in the often Byzantine nexus of healthcare administration, statutory and regulatory oversight, and the enforcement of laws, executive directives, standing orders, etc. We need help!
In my case, I learned that an administrative staff member had been violating fundamental COVID safety rules at my 100-year-old mom's long-term care residence. When I inquired, I was lied to. There are no other words. I will spare you the details. In less fraught times I might have let it go, but there is no latitude for error these days: COVID is merciless. Trust is all-important — it is every bit as much a health issue as the virus itself.
I reached out to the New Jersey Department of Health's LTC Ombudsman office, through the Department's LTC Resources webpage. I filled out an online complaint form (click for NJ sample), describing the situation in detail. This form gave me the option to remain anonymous to my mother's facility. A complaint may also be made over the phone.
The complaint was reviewed by an "intake supervisor" who contacted me a few days later by phone. I was reassured that my complaint was valid and needed to be addressed immediately. The supervisor was polite, professional, and very informative. Within two weeks, he investigated the matter thoroughly, and brought about a resolution. The facility's management was informed, and prompt action was taken to prevent any recurrence of the dangerous violations. This was all done without my mom's involvement or knowledge, since the complaint was not specific to her — the entire community had been put at risk, residents and staff alike.
All in all, this was a great example of a proactive, effective response by a government bureaucracy, which some believe is all-too-rare these days. The ombudsman had the knowledge and experience necessary to vet and resolve LTC issues, backed by the power of government to enforce compliance.
I hope you never need to, but should you find it necessary to go to bat for a loved one in an LTC facility, for any reason, I strongly recommend you consult with your state's senior care ombudsman office (see link to locate). As our parents age, we are called upon to advocate for them in many ways, that's our role. But advocates need advocates, too, when
situations arise that are beyond our grasp. It's a great comfort to know that help is available, just a few keystrokes or a phone call away.
"Under the Older Americans Act, every state is required to have a LTC Ombudsman Program that addresses complaints and advocates for improvements in the long-term care system. LTC ombudsmen are advocates for residents of nursing homes, board and care homes, and assisted living facilities" - theconsumersvoice.org.
ACL.gov: The Administration for Community Living Long Term Care Ombudsman Program has useful links and FAQs. At the end of the first section is a locator prompt to find each state's LTC Ombudsman office.
Find a Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP), Citizen Advocacy Group (CAG), and other long-term care resources in your state or territory.
Author: M. Llewellyn Chapman
M. Llewellyn Chapman is an acclaimed author and songwriter living in the NYC area.