Between the Lines

With columnist Anna Marie Lux.

Volunteer advocate makes difference in lives at nursing home

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, September 9, 2017

JANESVILLE—On a recent morning, Lew Robinson slipped into the room of a resident at St. Elizabeth's Nursing Home to say hello.

For almost 12 years, Robinson has been a loyal visitor to the Janesville facility, where he talks with residents and hears their stories.

In the process, he might learn about their concerns.

The 91-year-old is a volunteer advocate under the supervision of Julia Pierstorff of the Volunteer Ombudsman Program. The program operates through the state Board on Aging and Long Term Care.

“I get gratification from visiting people and putting a little cheer into their lives,” Robinson said.

He knows residents might tell him things they would not say to nursing home staff.

With permission of the residents, he shares their concerns with the appropriate people to boost their quality of life.

More advocates like Robinson are needed to visit with residents of long-term care facilities in Janesville, Beloit and Clinton.

Potential advocates care about older people, have two to three hours a week to give and want to make a difference in the lives of others.

Robinson spent a career as a Sears manager and then sold cars. After retirement, he wanted to help others in a meaningful way.

“I do this because it opens doors,” he said. “People are appreciative when you help them. They become friends instead of 'residents.'”

Robinson began volunteering after a daylong training offered by the ombudsman program.

In addition, educational services and meetings to bring volunteers together for sharing and support are offered throughout the year.

Pierstorff works with 30 volunteers in four counties, including Rock.

Volunteers are expected to stay at least six months.

“The majority of people who come on board stay,” she said. “They make these unbelievable connections with people. They feel their own lives are so enhanced.”

Some nursing home residents have family members who live far away and get few or no visitors. These are the ones most in need of “an extra pair of eyes and ears,” Pierstorff said.

She emphasized that volunteers are “not the police.”

“We always encourage a great working relationship between the ombudsman and the facility,” she said. “We are all here for the residents.”

She spoke in general about nursing homes served by volunteers.

The most common complaints are about food and missing items, Pierstorff said.

Other more serious complaints might be about resident abuse, not getting medicines as prescribed or not receiving timely medical or dental care.

“We take everything at face value,” Pierstorff said. “We don't jump to conclusions because we don't know the full story. Overall, we want facilities to take resident concerns seriously. Sometimes, we have to gently remind staff what the experience of the resident is.”

Everything residents tell volunteers is confidential, unless the resident asks the volunteer to share it.

However, if a resident makes an accusation of abuse, volunteers are instructed to report it to the state on the day they hear it.

A regional ombudsman then starts an investigation but does not identify the resident who is the subject of the accusation.

Sometimes situations do not get resolved as quickly as volunteers would like, and they might get discouraged.

Pierstorff gives them perspective.

“I remind my volunteers they are making a positive difference in the lives of residents every time they walk through the door of the nursing home,” she said. “They are brightening someone's day.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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