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March 29, 2005 > Advocating for the Elderly

Advocating for the Elderly

by Veronica Velasquez

"There is a big need for our services, especially in the Tri-City area," said Executive Director Gary Osteraas. "Several staff members have retired; we're down from our usual staff of 45 to about 32."

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 others who live in long-term care. 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. Ombudsman, Inc. recruits and trains volunteer advocates for residents of nursing homes and board and care facilities in all parts of Alameda County.

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.

Respect for elderly citizens in our society is the focal point of Ombusdman, Inc. "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."

Ombudsman volunteers tour senior facilities, and speak to residents about their care on an individual basis to preserve confidentiality. "Some residents may be unable to speak for themselves, and some may have no families to assist them," Osteraas said. Sometimes, the Ombudsmen are the only advocates for residents. They know that "no matter what facility we're in, we can remind the staff of the quality of life the residents should have."

"It takes 36 hours of training to become a volunteer, and then the volunteers attend another 12 workshops after they get their assignment," he 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 compliance 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," he said.

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

A common problem is food selection, he said. "We try to find ways to work with the kitchen staff to improve the quality of the food." He remembers one incident when a resident decided to leave his residence on his own. Fitted with a tracking device, he set off an alarm. It turned out that he was headed for a restaurant across a very busy street. He explained that he'd left because he was hungry. An Ombudsmen volunteer talked to the staff, and made sure that the kitchen took care to give him more food after that. "It all worked out."

Ombudsman, Inc. volunteers range in age from their 20s to past retirement age. "They have lots of energy want to put it to good use," said Osteraas. One lady brings her dog into the facility where she volunteers. The dog is specially trained to interact with people in these situations and brings joy to the residents and staff wherever it goes. Another volunteer who shows up frequently is a very good listener. They call her 'Columbo' (after a character from a popular 80s detective show) because she is very observant and persistent, in a non-threatening way, he said.

"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, Ext. 104 or visit

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