Gertrude Cope spent her 29-year career working mostly with numbers. Now retired, she has found her true calling, advocating for seniors living in her local nursing home. Cope is one of about 30 volunteer advocates serving at least 25 long-term care and adult home facilities in Queens. She works with the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens Volunteer Ombudsman program.
Cope lives in East Elmhurst and works at the Elmhurst Care Center at least four hours a week. She is charged with being a voice for the residents, defending their rights, and ensuring their quality care. She acts as a mediator between residents and staff. She informs them of their rights, listens when they have concerns, and works with the facility’s staff toward solutions. Cope is enthusiastic about her new calling. “Being an advocate is so satisfying, when you go in and you help people who really can’t help themselves.”
Laura Petta is the New York program director. She feels that advocates succeed in giving residents a voice. Because of a federal mandate, facilities are required by law to allow the ombudsman proper access. Facilities must let volunteers in and allow them one-on-one time with residents. They are also required to make residents aware of the ombudsman through postings.
Petta says that this type of volunteering isn’t only about making friendly visits. It’s about educating residents about their rights and intervening when they are not being upheld. It’s about making a difference in the quality of life for people who can’t always advocate for themselves.
Petta reports that for many residents, just knowing a volunteer is available provides comfort. It is also comforting for family members who aren’t always close by.
In addition to the volunteers, the program employs a staff of nine, who is always available to address concerns in the absence of a volunteer.
Cope finds this kind of work is not only a surprisingly perfect fit for her, but also extremely rewarding, even if the reward is only a smile. She was inspired to volunteer after her mother was placed in a nursing home out of state. She saw some things she did not like, but felt powerless to change them.
When she heard about the program, she volunteered. She has been doing it for two years now. The experience has not been without its frustrations. Cope recalls one particularly challenging resident who had her ready to quit.
But she persevered, and learned that her wheelchair-bound resident wanted to go outside, and wanted to walk. Cope took these concerns to the staff and three weeks later, the resident was walking on her own. Since then, Cope says her once-difficult resident treats her as a best friend.
Cope’s story exemplies the mission of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, which runs the ombudsman program in New York. They strive to help seniors lead healthier, more productive and more dignified lives.
The non-profit organization runs several diverse programs for seniors, including free transportation, alternative housing, several senior centers and cultural enrichment programs such as the ater trips. They have job placement programs and home repair programs geared to help seniors maintain independent lifestyles. They are supported by private contributions as well as by various city agencies.
The ombudsman program relies in large part on the generosity of volunteers. There are currently 125 volunteers in the program throughout the five boroughs, and only about 30 serving the estimated 9,000 seniors living in extended care facilities in Queens. The program strives to provide a volunteer ombudsman for all those seniors.
They will need to bring aboard about 60 more volunteers in Queens to reach their goal of having a dedicated volunteer in each long-term care and adult home. Petta noted that assisted living facilities will soon be added to the list of facilities the program services, which will further increase the need for volunteers.
They come from all walks of life, but volunteers are often retired from the social services field. Petta reports that the numbers fluctuate. Some people stay on only for the required year, but many stay longer. She knows of one Queens volunteer who has been at it for two decades.
Each volunteer is required to give at least four hours per week and commit to one year of service. Efforts are made to place volunteers in homes near where they live. Each volunteer also attends a required 36-hour, state-run training where they become officially certified ombudsman.
Cope found that the training was vital to her success. She said that the medical terms associated with long-term care can sometimes be a little intimidating, but she finds kindness and people skills go a long way.
She can’t see every resident each time (Elmhurst can have as many as 240 residents on any given week) but she keeps her ear to the ground for trouble, visiting weekly with the president of the resident council. She says she can’t just walk away at this point. “You become their family, the daughter, the mother, the sister, whatever, that is the gratifying thing that I get.”
Those interested in becoming volunteers through the ombudsman program can contact them at 212-962-2720.