Throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, a critically important but not universally known service, the Long Term Care Ombudsman, was mentioned multiple times by Governor Tom Wolf, Secretary of Health Rachel Levine and others.

Lackawanna County Area Agency on Aging provides Long Term Care Ombudsman Service to our community through a very successful and long-standing partnership with Serving Seniors. Like many of you, I didn’t know what this meant before my grandmother entered a skilled care facility. This service is one of the most important components of the long-term care system and is one of the primary safeguards to the population residing in this system.

All throughout Pennsylvania, ombudsmen serve as advocates for long-term living consumers who cannot advocate for themselves. It is also a support for those who can self-advocate and ensures all those residing in a long-term living environment live with dignity and respect. They also identify and investigate complaints.

Here in Lackawanna County, our ombudsman Linda Korgeski from Serving Seniors works tirelessly to educate each resident of a nursing home, personal care home, assisted living facility, Adult Day participants and families about their rights, facility procedures and the resources available to them through a network of volunteers. Most important of all, they provide direct assistance when a person’s rights or quality of care are being challenged. Ombudsman work with facilities and providers to mediate disputes between individuals and families all while maintaining the strictest confidentiality standards and protecting the dignity and rights of the persons involved.

Our ombudsman also trains and maintains the vital link between our PEER Volunteers and our facilities. Pennsylvania’s Empowered Expert Residents are trained self-advocates who empower and guide their fellow residents to improve the quality of life and care at each facility. This partnership between resident, facility staff and ombudsman gives all residents a voice and keeps participants engaged in the decision-making process.

As we entered March, face-to-face contact with residents was stopped to prevent the spread of infection. Residents and families already adjusting to the challenges we all faced had the added fear, anxiety, frustration and anger of not being able to see their loved ones. Every day, countless residents are assisted by their families with their meals, grooming and countless other daily activities we all take for granted.

While face-to-face contact stopped, the challenges and work to find new ways to connect families to loved ones never did. Each week countless phone calls, video conferences and virtual family council meetings were conducted to provide connectivity with loved ones and to make sure the residents were being cared for. Serving Seniors also mounted an effort to mail cards and letters to residents to let them know they were not forgotten. Each week the ombudsman gathered data on personal protection equipment, the infected residents and employees and fatalities for the department.

With concerns mounting over isolated residents, The Pennsylvania Department of Aging through its Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman partnered with AARP to offer communication devices to long-term care facilities to increase residents’ outside contact with friends and family members. The Department and AARP were supported by the Pennsylvania Associations of Area Agencies on Aging to pilot this program in various communities. Three facilities in Lackawanna County directly benefited from the device distribution.

One outcome from the pandemic is a better appreciation for the work done by a few individuals in our community. I am grateful we have a visible and active ombudsman in Lackawanna County, thanks in no small part to Mary Anne Maloney Evans, Linda Korgeski and their team of volunteers and employees at Serving Seniors. With many of us finding new ways to give back to our community, this organization can provide interested volunteers an opportunity to be a person’s champion when they need it the most.

Jason Kavulich is the director of Lackawanna County’s Area Agency on Aging. For more information about services available, visit bit.ly/30BVb72 or call 570-963-6740.