When there’s a complaint about a nursing home, these volunteers can help

Since retiring four years ago, Barbara Corprew has visited Paris, traveled to a North Carolina film festival and taken Pilates classes, focusing on — as she puts it — just “doing things for me.” Now the former Justice Department lawyer, who worked on white-collar crime cases, is devoting time to something completely different: She visits nursing homes every week.

Corprew is a volunteer in the District’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman’s Office, a government-funded advocacy agency for nursing home and assisted-living residents.

The ombudsmen’s offices, which operate under federal law in all 50 states and the District, investigated 200,000 complaints in 2015, according to the Administration on Aging, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Of those, almost 117,000 were reported to have been resolved in a way that satisfied the person who made the complaint, and about 30,000 were partially resolved. At the top of the list were problems concerning care, residents’ rights, physical environment, admissions and discharges, and abuse and neglect.

The volunteers have permission to enter any nursing home, assisted-living or other long-term-care facility anytime, unannounced, talk to any resident and go wherever they want. They respond to issues raised by residents and their families and can bring up problems they discover. All complaints are handled confidentially, even kept from family members, unless residents allow the ombudsman to reveal their identities.

“I know how important it is to find people who care and give good quality care,” said Corprew, who was an advocate for her parents when they became ill. Her mother was in and out of the hospital and a nursing home during her last years of life. So when she received a letter about the need for volunteer ombudsmen, the appeal hit home. “This was an opportunity to give back to the community and feel as if I was making a difference by representing people who didn’t have a voice.”

She is assigned to a nursing home in Northwest Washington. She wears sturdy lace-up shoes for the trek through the hallways, knocking on doors to speak with residents in their rooms. She has handled problems involving call bells that don’t work or are out of reach, noisy roommates and procedures for bathing a resident.

She distributes brochures about residents’ rights and how to contact the ombudsman, writing her name on the front. And she uses all five senses on her rounds: When coming across a chair that smelled of urine, she recalled, “the nose tells you a lot.”

Most ombudsmen programs depend on volunteers. After completing two days of classroom sessions and field training and passing a criminal-background check, District volunteer ombudsmen spend about three hours a week at their assigned facilities and attend monthly update meetings for at least a…

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