Phil Pitruzello, an 84-year-old retired professor from New York University, helped a man who couldn’t get out of bed.
As a volunteer for the Washington State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, Pitruzello listens to the concerns and complaints of people in adult care facilities to help make sure they’re getting the treatment they deserve.
“We had a person who had fallen out of bed, so they therefore strapped him into the bed,” the Issaquah resident said. “But every resident by law is required to be in the least restricted environment possible.”
So, after clearing it with the man’s caretakers, he had his bed laid on the floor to eliminate the straps, along with any future accidents.
“Ombudsman” is a Swedish word that translates to “one who speaks on behalf of another.” The program’s volunteers represent this title well by spending four hours a week talking to residents of nursing homes, adult family homes and adult living facilities about the quality of their care.
“To ensure the rights of anybody living in these facilities are not abridged in any way, that’s our job,” said John Stilz, a Sammamish resident and one of the volunteer coordinators for King County. “We’re non-profit, we don’t charge for it and we’re not related to the government.”
They act as a third party, independent of facility administrators and political influences.
“One of the things I like to tell the families — my mantra so to speak — is ‘I don’t work for the state, I don’t work for the facility, I work for the resident and their rights,’” said Arlene Ber, a retiree who lives in Bothell.
This independence is vital in developing a trust between residents and volunteers so that they feel comfortable voicing their grievances.
Otherwise, some legitimate concerns could be silenced, Pitruzello said.
“They say, ‘If I complain too much they might ask me to leave,’ and they can’t do that,” he said.
The volunteers serve as mediators between residents, administrators, and anyone else who may be involved in an issue.
“We try to persuade administrators to see the resident’s point of view,” Stilz said.
But, because of the low number of volunteers, some people are not being heard.
Stilz calculated that in his allotted area, East King County, there are 58 assisted living facilities and nursing homes, with 16 covered by volunteers. Of the seven in Issaquah, four have volunteers from the Ombudsman Program checking up on residents.
“Our mission in life is extremely, highly dependent on the work of volunteers,” Stilz said. “Without volunteers, we couldn’t do our job.”
Whether it’s freeing someone from his bed or keeping another from being wrongly evicted, as some ombudsmen have done, volunteers are making real change.
Christina Fay, 66, helped a man named Bill regain his ability to communicate after he’d had a stroke.
“He starts to speak normally and then nothing comes out of his mouth,” the Bellevue resident said. “So I suggested that maybe if he had a computer he could type out his questions.”
She found a donated computer, and now Bill can converse electronically.
Fay said it’s important to help the residents, especially because many don’t have anyone to speak for them.
“I volunteer because I know the elderly people, they get forgotten by their kids and family,” Fay said. “If someone comes and looks into their eyes and takes the time to talk to them, it just enhances their day.”
Pitruzello said he volunteers for the same reasons.
“Many of them do not have anybody else but themselves,” he said. “And generally speaking, they’re not very adept at getting things done that they desire in an institution like that, so they need that help.”
For more information or to find out about volunteering, visit www.ltcop.org or call Volunteer Coordinator Mary Fogh at 206-694-6703.