What is an Ombudsman?

by Senior Care Staff on February 17, 2012

An ombudsman serves the public by reviewing and investigating complaints about a certain type of institution. One kind of ombudsman watches over long-term care facilities for the elderly, such as assisted living and nursing homes. In addition to handling specific complaints from the public, ombudsmen advocate on behalf of long-term care residents in general. More than 500 such ombudsmen exist throughout the United States, according to the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program of St. Louis. It’s very important for seniors and their families to know about ombudsmen.


Although many long-term care facilities treat seniors well, abuse and neglect occur far too often. New Brunswick’s provincial government confirmed 40 allegations of abuse during a period of two years, according to the Winnipeg Free Press. About 32 percent involved abuse or neglect committed by the staff of long-term care facilities. The rest of the complaints related to residents abusing each other. Sadly, dementia can lead to aggressive behavior from time to time. Ombudsmen play a very important role in preventing abuse and ensuring quality care. The State of New Jersey reports that its ombudsman’s office performs over 3,000 complaint investigations annually.

This type of ombudsman may work for a regional government agency or a non-profit organization. Some are appointed by state or provincial governors. Ombudsmen may receive pay or work as volunteers. Salaried ombudsmen typically have greater responsibilities and work more hours. They perform administrative tasks and supervise employees. Some also produce reports or newsletters to inform the public about issues regarding long-term care. Experienced and well-educated individuals oversee volunteer ombudsmen. Depending upon the type and severity of a problem, a volunteer can resolve the issue personally or forward the complaint to another agency.

Ombudsmen need special training to handle complaints competently. The required training varies from one region to another. Some volunteer programs provide free ombudsman training sessions. Salaried positions generally demand much more training and education. For example, the state of West Virginia requires its long-term care ombudsman to hold a master’s degree and possess experience in a relevant field. With significant work experience, a bachelor’s degree is acceptable. The state also applies various restrictions to prevent conflicts of interest. It will not hire an ombudsman who has recently worked in a long-term care facility. It is important to have an ombudsman who understands how such facilities work, but he or she should not prioritize the interests of owners and staff.

Seniors should consider contacting ombudsmen about mistreatment they experience or observe in long-term care facilities. The California Department of Aging urges the public to contact ombudsmen about service quality issues and suspected financial, psychological or physical abuse. It’s also important to report neglect, which can be just as harmful. Ombudsmen usually accept reports from anonymous or named sources. This allows residents and staff members to complain without fear of retribution. In many areas, a toll-free number is available for making complaints. Some of these numbers operate at all times; others remain limited to business or daytime hours. Depending upon the state or province, it may also be possible to email, fax or mail such complaints.

At the same time, an ombudsman isn’t always the best person to contact. Direct communication with the staff of a long-term care facility may yield a solution more quickly. Seniors can also tell visiting friends and relatives about such problems. In some cases, staff members take complaints from non-residents more seriously. The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services recommends that long-term care residents contact the ombudsman if efforts to communicate with the staff fail to deliver positive results. It also suggests speaking with a doctor about concerns regarding medical treatment in a long-term care facility. This will help determine if the treatment is actually improper or inadequate.

Due to the large volume of complaints, ombudsmen cannot always respond quickly to reports of abuse. A lack of state funding or inadequate staffing can also slow the response to complaints. If a person faces immediate danger, it’s best to contact the police first. When complaints to an ombudsman fail to adequately resolve a serious problem, seniors shouldn’t give up. Government licensing workers and other regulators also accept complaints about problems with long-term care. Another option involves speaking with an attorney. If mistreatment has already caused physical or financial harm, a lawsuit may be warranted.

Like police, ombudsmen also help to prevent abuse. The staff of long-term care homes become less likely to mistreat residents when they know that ombudsmen, government regulators, and relatives are watching over them. Some states require every senior housing facility to post the name and contact information of an ombudsman. Ombudsmen occasionally visit nursing or assisted living homes without receiving complaints. They can ask residents and staff about living conditions in a facility.

Ombudsmen can do much to improve the living conditions of the elderly and ensure that they receive proper care. However, they can only achieve this goal when people are willing to provide information. The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services urges people to act on concerns as soon as possible, before problems lead to serious harm. When making a complaint, consult the admission agreement; it outlines all of the services that a specific facility is required to supply. It’s also helpful to determine if the facility has failed to follow a specific government regulation. With the help of prompt and detailed complaints, ombudsmen can do their jobs well.

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