By DARINA NAIDU
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Amy Gehrig is a new voice for those who live in long-term care.
The Champlain woman recently took the post of Long Term Care Ombudsman Program coordinator at the North Country Center for Independence.
“We draw attention to (residents’) issues, and we’re there to improve their nursing home,” Gehrig said in a phone interview.
“We are their voice.”
She follows Alan Bechard, who was appointed assistant vice ombudsman in Albany.
FEET ON THE GROUND
Gehrig’s main job is to coordinate the volunteers who serve as ombudsmen in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult homes, advocating for their rights.
The volunteers — in both Clinton and Essex counties — work to resolve complaints, monitor quality of life and help to preserve the dignity of residents of any age.
Gehrig said that during her first couple of days in her new position, she was overwhelmed by the amount of information she needed to absorb about the job.
But now, she said, she has her feet on the ground.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” she said.
Most recently, Gehrig was a third-grade teacher and advancement director at St. Mary’s Academy in Champlain, which closed in June 2012.
“It truly was a fabulous job; I loved going to work every day,” she said.
“But there’s always a reason for things to happen, and I look forward to making a difference at NCCI.”
The main goal of the ombudsman program, she said, is to make sure the residents are happy where they are and that they receive proper care.
In order to make that happen, more volunteers are needed, and Gehrig hopes to increase the time they spend attending to the needs of those they serve.
Mark Randall, an ombudsman assigned to Meadowbrook Healthcare and Evergreen Valley Nursing Home, both in Plattsburgh, said the transition of moving into such a facility is always difficult, so the ombudsmen make sure it takes place as easily as possible.
One of 10 residents at nursing homes has no family, Randall said, so an ombudsman becomes an important connection for them.
“So we make sure we spend extra time with them,” he said. “I mean, it’s just sad.”
Randall said he goes to the nursing homes twice a week for three or four hours each day.
He listens to residents and investigates issues they bring up. Among them might be quality of care, response by staff to meet needs or perhaps quality of food.
“We represent the residents, so we work as a mediator,” he said.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
Gehrig said many of the residents are not aware they can request food, games or amenities that can improve their lives.
“Of course, they can,” she said. “It’s their home. We want to make things pleasant for them.”
Randall said they try to make sure the residents have the best quality of life possible.
A volunteer since fall 2008, he has found the work extremely rewarding.
“Residents get very attached to their ombudsman.”
There are about 10 ombudsmen volunteering in total, and the Center for Independence will hold a training program for new volunteers May 6 through 10.
Gehrig said the center is looking for people who are willing to commit themselves to help for a few hours each week and give back to their community.
Many residents at nursing homes do not know that they have ombudsmen to speak for them and make sure their needs are fulfilled and their rights respected, she noted.
There are posters about ombudsmen in the facilities, she said, and they can also ask the staff how to contact the program.
“This is an extremely important job,” she said. “We need to let the residents feel that they are important because they are.
“And you don’t realize how much a smile can touch someone.”
For more information on the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program or to sign up for the upcoming training, contact Amy Gehrig at the North Country Center for Independence at 563-9058, Ext. 104; on her cellphone, 562-1732; or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first streaming of the training will take place at the center from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 6 through 10.
Volunteers need three references to apply and will shadow an ombudsman as part of their training.