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What is a Long-Term Care Ombudsman and What Do They Do?

Even in the best-run assisted living facility or nursing home, problems can arise. When a resident has complaints about food, maintenance, medical care, or emotional or mental abuse, they – or someone representing their interests – may approach management.

But what if that either seems unwise or doing so fails to achieve the desired result? Short of the resident either simply enduring the situation, or moving out, or hiring an (expensive) attorney and threatening to turn the whole thing into a court case, what can the resident do? Contact their local Ombudsman, that’s what!

The Role of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman

According to the American Bar Association, there are five principal classifications of Ombudsman:

  1. Classical/Traditional
  2. Legislative
  3. Executive
  4. Organizational
  5. Advocate

The lattermost is the type to whom inhabitants of senior housing can turn when they need someone to advocate for them. To be clear, friends, family, as well as employees of the facility can also contact an Ombudsman if they sense any maltreatment of residents.

The role of the long-term care ombudsman

What Makes an Ombudsman so Useful?

The four principal traits an Ombudsman brings to the table are:

  • Independence: They must be utterly objective when reviewing the complaint.
  • Impartiality: The long-term care Ombudsman is not being paid or otherwise compensated by either party in the dispute.
  • Confidentiality: Nothing the resident says to the Ombudsman in confidence may be repeated to anyone else.
  • Informality: The investigation is conducted in a more relaxed, low-key fashion versus the atmosphere of the courtroom. This makes the subsequent investigation less nerve-wracking for all involved.

The idea of an Ombudsman is to ensure that fairness prevails, that the more vulnerable are not at the mercy of the powerful, and to avoid a costly and stressful court case, if possible.

It’s useful to know, too, that a long-term care Ombudsman has access to state reports on senior care facilities, making them an excellent person to turn to when trying to find the right place for yourself or your loved one.

But What is an Ombudsman?

Let’s get a few facts straight about Ombudsmen (the plural), aka ombuds (less formal term), aka public advocates:

  • Ombudsman: A Scandinavian word dating back to the 1700s meaning representative of or agent of the people.
  • The basic concept behind this term goes back to ancient Egypt. It is common throughout the history of much of the world.
  • The role of the ombud is fundamentally the same, regardless of the arena he/she is working in. Employing the four traits listed above, an Ombudsman, when requested, initiates an investigation of a complaint registered by a member of the public against a government agency or against any organization (like an assisted living facility or nursing home) when the parties involved have tried but failed to achieve resolution.
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  • As stated above, the complaint could involve a wide range of issues, from what might seem relatively minor to the most serious.
  • At least in the U.S., the Ombudsman does not have the authority to issue judgments, punishments, or fines, but rather gathers evidence and sifts through it, ultimately composing a written report of their findings.
  • In the U.S., the vast majority of the thousands of Ombudsman are unpaid, carefully trained volunteers. Only a very few receive a wage. These are employed by federal agencies (Homeland Security, the IRS, e.g.) or, possibly, by the uppermost state agencies. They are also accessible to the public.
  • The U.S. does not have an official Ombudsman at the federal level. Instead, members of Congress handle some of the issues that might otherwise fall to an Ombudsman.
  • Five states plus one U.S. territory do have a government-appointed Ombudsman: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Help is Just a Phone Call or a Click Away

It’s easy to contact an advocate. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask someone in management at the facility involved. Alternatively, visit The Consumer Voice or The Ombudsman Directory. (The latter includes both a national and an international directory cross-referenced with area of expertise.)

It lists all states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Besides links to your local advocate, and directions for how to proceed, you’ll also find the names and contact data of that region’s other protective agencies and citizens advocates, including the local Office on Aging.

Volunteer to be an Ombudsman

Anyone can be an Ombudsman. Typically, no special background is required, just a desire to assist those who need it. You also need a willingness to go through the training. This will be provided, free of charge, unless you’re taking this training for a class credit.

Even if you choose not to become an Ombudsman, by reporting to the state any signs of possible abuse or other irregularity involving a resident’s welfare, you are actively advocating for that resident and all residents.

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