Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

March 22, 2005 > Helping People with Disabilities Find Work

Helping People with Disabilities Find Work

by Veronica Velasquez

"There is a big need for our services in the Tri-City area especially," said executive director Gary Osteraas. "We have had several staff members retire, and so now we're down from our usual staff of 45 to about 32. We also need suggestions from the local community groups. There are four new staff members coming on, but none of them are from the Tri-City area."

Ombudsman, Inc., a non-profit organization that advocates for the elderly, is looking for volunteers in Fremont, Newark, and Union City to assist seniors and other people who live in long-term care. The program recruits and trains volunteer advocates for residents of nursing homes and board and care facilities in all parts of Alameda County.

The organization is a local affiliate of the national and state Long-Term Care Ombudsman programs, mandated by the federal Older Americans Act and its state companion, the Older Californians Act.

"We normally try to get interest in the volunteer services via news stories (such as this one), PSAs (Public Service Announcements), or referrals from existing volunteers," said Osteraas. "Sometimes churches or religions groups donate their time and/or money."

"No matter what facility we're in, we can remind the staff of the quality of life the residents should have," Osteraas said.

Ombudsman, Inc. has been in operation for 27 years. Osteraas has been executive director for the past six months. Prior to his work with the organization, he worked in elderly care for 20 years.

"I wanted to pay back the elderly with respect, which is why I decided to go into this field," Osteraas said. "My grandmother was a quiet person, a very good listener. I used to go visit her, and she could really zero in and listen!

"At first, I had thought she was just a typical, quaint lady. Here I was, 17 years old and a football player, going to spend time with my Norwegian grandmother! But I really respected her."

That respect for the elderly counterparts in our society is the focal point of the services rendered by Ombusdman, Inc. Through hours of dedication and work, it is a regard for their dignity and sense of well being that the organization strives to protect.

The Ombudsmen volunteers tour the facilities, and speak individually to residents. They ask them about their experience in the residence, which allows for more confidentiality, and provides an alternative to having the volunteers ask questions in front of a group.

"Some residents may be unable to speak for themselves, and some may have no families to assist them," Osteraas said.

The regulatory agencies, such as the Department of Health Services, which monitors the skilled nursing facilities, and Community Care Licensing, do periodic visits. They do them more frequently if there has been a complaint. These regulatory agencies are also in charge of licensing.

Both types of care facilities are held to the strictest standards of the respective regulatory agencies. They can be fined or have their license taken away if they don't respond to the problem well enough.

Of course, the complaint has to be substantiated first.

"My function as executive director is to make sure that the house rules are explained well enough, and also to investigate complaints, such as that of physical abuse," Osteraas said.

In addition to these agencies, there are family councils and resident councils, where the volunteers speak with the residents as well.

Elderly care facilities are broken down into two categories. There is resident care, in such facilities as an assisted living place, or a board and care nursing home, and there are also skilled nursing facilities. The assisted living residences tend to be more expensive, and the individual has a private room.

In resident care, the staff cooks for the clients, and there is a general 'homey' atmosphere. There can be as little as six to eight residents in the facility, or as many as 40 or 50. It's built on a social model. The funding for this type of care is not subsidized by MediCal.

At a skilled nursing facility, there is 24-hour medical care. There are also more staff members with medical training. These facilities are subsidized by MediCal.

"It takes 36 hours of training to become a volunteer, and then the volunteers attend another 12 workshops after they get their assignment," Osteraas said. "The workshops are a way for them to focus on developing their skills, and it also trains them to deal with challenges."

Some of these challenges may include checking whether or not the food is warm enough. Another concern is whether or not people are agreeable with the health rules.

"We often resolve problems by working with the staff, before we ever have to turn it over to the regulatory agencies," Osteraas said.

"One incident I remember is that where a resident decided to leave the facility on his own," Osteraas said. "He was already fitted with a tracking monitor, so he set off the alarm when he left. It turns out he was headed for the restaurants across a very busy street. So an Ombudsman volunteer talked to him, and he promised not to try to leave anymore. He explained that he'd left because he was hungry. So the volunteer talked to the staff, and made sure that the kitchen took care to give him more food after that. It all worked out."

A common problem residents complain of is the food; often times they just don't like it, said Osteraas. They try to find ways to work with the kitchen staff to improve the quality of the food.

"Another problem residents face is when they are misunderstood. Especially in the case of our residents suffering from dementia, a condition which requires a lot of patience on the part of the staff. It also takes understanding, when a patient keeps ringing for a nurse when the nurse is standing right in front of her. Some other potential problems are that of residents not getting along, or inappropriate behavior between roommates," he said. "They are usually moved to another room, or sent to a different facility altogether that can address their needs."

He finds this work exciting because they have people on staff who surprise them with their dedication. "Of the stories of the board members and volunteers, I like hearing about their victories the most, and how they've changed things for the better," he said. "Like in the way that volunteer handled the incident with the resident who was leaving the premises; he handled it with respect for the individual, which allowed him to keep his dignity."

Their volunteers are typically in their late 20s, all the way up to past retirement age. Many are professionals, and they come from such fields as nursing or union organizations. They have lots of energy and interest in their work that they'd like to put to good use. I think it makes them feel gratified, and they get a certain satisfaction out of it, said Osteraas.

"There is a lady who brings her dog into the facility where she volunteers" Osteraas said. The dog, which is specially trained to interact with people in such a situation, is a joy to the residents and staff wherever it goes.

"It takes more than a desire to help people to do this kind of work," Osteraas emphasized. "It takes the ability and desire to solve problems. People appreciate it when a volunteer focuses on the problem at hand and follows through with it."

"Another one of our volunteers shows up frequently, and she's a very good listener," he said. "They call her 'Columbo' (after a character from a popular 80s detective show). She is persuasive and persistent, in a non-threatening way. She is also observant, like Columbo himself.

"We have a slogan here at Ombudsman that says 'we put the 'home' back in nursing home', although no one calls it that anymore," Osteraas said. "And a lot of staff persons have that goal, too. We also like to say that we're the advocates who won't go away. We visit the facilities at least once a week. Sometimes the residents are afraid that if their families aren't visiting frequently, then they won't get proper care.

"We'd love to get more volunteers in the Tri City area," Osteraas said. "We also want to be able to represent the cultural diversity in our volunteer base. They can help to communicate in the way residents would like to have their concerns put forward, and they can also give them someone to identify with in terms of cultural values."

For more information on volunteer opportunities call Dorothy Epstein at (510) 638-6878, x104 or visit

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