HELP LINE: Ombudsman program volunteers are on ‘her’ side

IN THIS LINE of work, I listen to a lot of stories, which is fine, because the only way to figure out how to attempt to help somebody is to listen to the story.

Besides, I’m not in health care so I don’t have to run somebody through every nine minutes. And getting to hear the stories is one of the perks that come with this job.

Evidently, it’s supposed to substitute for money.

My understimulated economic status notwithstanding, I’ve got to listen to the story, told by the storyteller, before I can even pretend to offer anything intelligent.

Many stories are inspirational, some are funny, some are tragic, some are maddening, some are amazing and a few are just … stories. Unto all things there is a motive, if not a season.

And some stories end like this: “… and she had to go into a nursing home.” Or, “… so we moved her into an adult family home.” Or, “… he’s looking at that assisted living place …”

Not many, but some. And those things are always said like endings: “… and we had to move her into a nursing home. The end.”

Did she die?

No; so, the story didn’t end — it just concluded for the storyteller. But for her (whomever she is) the story is definitely not over. It’s just the next chapter. And whether she has dementia, has suffered a stroke or any number of other things that can change your mental channel permanently, the story still isn’t over. But, for many of the rest of us, it is.

Folks and families visit, sure, and some are better at it than others.

There are often good reasons for why people do or don’t do what we see them do or not do, but you’d have to hear the story to understand them.

In many ways, the practical fact is that it’s a goodbye, without saying goodbye. But for her, it didn’t end — it goes on.

So, what becomes of her?

Almost everybody she sees all day every day is getting paid (kinda) to mess with her: get her up, clean her up, see that she’s fed, get her to activities, get her the meds or a shower or clean clothes, or a lot of other less exotic things. It’s their job.

And caring as they often are, it is their job, so one more time: What of her?

Enter long-term care ombudsman. These are folks who don’t get paid — at all, literally.

They volunteer their time to go through incredibly complex training so they can go into facilities and advocate for residents — make friends — and be on her side.

Now, here’s another story.

This is a story from Amber Garrotte, the lady who runs this ombudsman program. As usual, she’s the best at telling her own story:

“We all start out fresh in life and then … we live our story. As life goes on and we are creating our stories, we may become a little smaller physically, our appearance may change, as may our thoughts and feelings about things, as we grow into the winter of our lives. It matters not what shape we end up in from our life story. What matters is that it be honored.

“Every resident in a facility has a story. People are not patients or room numbers — they are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and/or sisters with a life story that matters.

“During a monthly meeting/training with our local ombudsman volunteers some months back, we were guided through an emotional exercise. We started with a small, fresh, firm orange. Each person who wished to participate held the orange in their hand and told one of their own stories. As the orange went around the table and absorbed each story, it became softer, maybe even a little battered from the experience of nervous rolling about in the hand of the storyteller. I was last to tell one of my stories.

“As the time came to toss the orange in the garbage, I found that I couldn’t throw it away or even set it aside. I held it. The little orange was heavy with pieces of life, emotional stories that mattered. It had become a living organism to me with a life of its own and throwing it away felt like I would be throwing a piece of each person away, so I had it dehydrated so I could save it for as long as it would last, remembering people’s stories.

“For me, it is a lot like the lives of the residents we serve. This story is why I am an ombudsman, knowing I am honoring residents’ stories, and it has changed my life. Come change your life with me — it will not be an easy task but it will be an amazing part of your journey, your story.”

Interesting, huh?

Not a faceless, disengaged bureaucrat. A real, live human being who cares.

Care to be a part of the long-term care ombudsman program?

You could contact Garrotte at 360-986-0657 or even email her at [email protected] and talk it over.

You’ll be talking to someone who cares, and who knows what they’re talking about.

What if it were you?

What if it were me?

If it were, I’d want somebody on my side and by my side, and that would be an important part of my story — whether I ever got to tell it.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing [email protected].

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