South Jersey needs more volunteers like Jim Vine of Barrington and Ann Herrmann-Sauer of Haddonfield to drop in on nursing homes and check on the health and safety of residents, state officials say.
In weekly, unannounced visits, Vine and Herrmann-Sauer solve quality-of-life concerns, such as cold coffee or broken televisions, and head off bigger problems by improving dental care or tracking down financial reimbursements.
"We need some of those eyes and ears on the ground immediately," said Debra Branch, New Jersey's ombudsman for the institutionalized elderly. Her office fielded 7,378 complaints of abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation in 2008.
Branch's 14 investigators could not oversee the state's 1,555 nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and other long-term-care sites without the "small army of the volunteers," she said.
Volunteer advocates have 24-hour, seven-day access to care facilities and talk to residents in cafeterias, in recreation rooms, during physical therapy, and at bedside. In most cases, they resolve issues amicably with staff members without bringing in state officials - and that is the goal, said Joann Cancel, program coordinator.
The program was launched in 1993 to establish a visible representation of the needs and rights of long-term-care residents 60 or older. It is funded by a grant from the federal Older Americans Act.
Volunteers number about 200 statewide, but some South Jersey counties do not have any, Cancel said. Burlington County has four, and Camden and Gloucester Counties each have five. The region could use 20 to 25 more volunteers, Cancel said.
"As people are living longer, they're outliving their family and their spouses. They need someone to advocate for them," Branch said.
Yet the work is not for just anyone, Cancel and Branch said. Volunteers take 32 hours of medical, legal, and ethical training designed by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the Rutgers School of Social Work.
Before venturing out on their own, they shadow veterans. Once in the program, they attend quarterly elder-care workshops.
Herrmann-Sauer mentored a retired nurse practitioner who bowed out after a few visits, she said. "Until you walk into that building, you don't know if you can do it," she said.
"You go into some really tough situations sometimes," Branch said. "You have to take a tough stand. People may not like you."
Statewide, the increase in complaints to the ombudsman between 2007 and 2008 involved financial exploitation of residents, often by family members; physical abuse; poor care planning; and involuntary discharges, according to figures released last week by the Public Advocate's Office.
Calls went down related to accidental injury, inadequate record keeping, and resident-to-resident abuse.
When investigators come on a case, they use volunteers to learn about a home's history, residents, and staff.
"You have to gain the confidence of residents and have an ability to work with administrators," said Vine, 83, a volunteer at Gloucester Manor Health Care Center in Sewell for 10 years. "Bullying doesn't work too well."
Mostly, the job focuses on improving quality of life - tracking down missing laundry, facilitating communication with families, arranging haircuts, or having a conversation. Neither Vine nor Herrmann-Sauer has ever called in state investigators.
"They're little things, but they're really important to the person," said Herrmann-Sauer, who has visited Lakewood of Voorhees Nursing Home for five years. "Each day is different. There's no boredom in this job."
A North Jersey volunteer raised bingo participation by reconfiguring the room to accommodate more people with hearing impairments; another arranged asthma treatment for a patient the nursing staff had overlooked, Cancel said.
The advocates are "a great resource for the people," said Marie Vorlicek, the Lakewood of Voorhees administrator. "Sometimes [residents] are a little apprehensive to ask questions. Ann's is a friendly voice."
Dealing frequently with death can take an emotional toll, the volunteers said.
"The hardest part is seeing people who you've interacted with pass on," said John Blesi, 66, of Washington Township, who volunteers in West Deptford. "You see them spiral from active adult to hospice care."
Vine, a former financial manager who also helps senior citizens prepare taxes each spring, writes poetry as an outlet. Periodically, he takes some time off.
"You try to steel your emotions. You don't gather it too closely inside, or you're not going to be successful at this," he said.
Hospice workers helped volunteers deal with loss at a recent workshop, said Herrmann-Sauer, a guidance counselor in the Delsea Regional and Hammonton School Districts until she retired six years ago. A few grieved as family members would; others maintained an advocate's distance.
"Will it work for me when a certain few pass away?" she wondered. "I still remember the first person I ever spoke to who passed away. But I don't let it get inside."