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New Times / Commentary

The following article was posted on January 9th, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 24 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 24

Advocating for the elderly

For Rita Mertens, making life better for people in long-term care facilities is a 'privilege'

BY CARLY FOX

Rita Mertens, a long-time retiree to the Central Coast, has been advocating for the elderly for more than 20 years. As a state-certified Long Term Care Ombudsman, Mertens volunteers her time visiting long-term care facilities to ensure that residents receive the highest possible quality of life and care.

Mertens is part of the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program of San Luis Obispo County, a nonprofit organization mandated by the Federal Americans Act and the Older Californians Act to advocate for residents of long-term care facilities. The goal of the Ombudsman Program is to enhance the quality of life, improve the level of care, protect residents’ rights, and promote the dignity of each California citizen living in a long-term care facility.

The Ombudsman Program is a national- and state-level program that began in the 1970s when politicians became aware of care problems in long-term care facilities. Many dedicated volunteers and family members worked to develop the national and state Long Term Care Ombudsman Program to ensure that facility residents receive quality care, their rights are respected, and they are free from abuse.

Mertens began volunteering with the program in 1990 when the ombudsman office was in Dorothy Birkhead’s garage. Birkhead, a retired postmaster of Morro Bay, founded the Ombudsman program in San Luis Obispo in 1978.

“It was just a few of us meeting in a tiny garage, but we were very dedicated,” Mertens explained.

Today the program is sustained by dedicated and compassionate volunteers like Mertens who are thoroughly trained and state-certified to be safe, confidential, and caring advocates. With eight skilled nursing homes and roughly 100 residential care facilities in San Luis Obispo County, the Ombudsman Program serves more than 3,000 residents of long-term care facilities.

In her long history with the program, Mertens has seen many ombudsmen come and go. She says that for some prospective volunteers, actually going inside long-term care facilities is too challenging: “They complete the 40 hour training course, but when it actually comes time to step inside the facility they no longer want to do it.”

For Mertens, however, stepping inside long-term care facilities has never been an issue. As a young girl she frequently visited her grandfather in nursing homes, and when her mother went into a nursing home, Mertens was by her side.

“Many people abhor the thought of having to walk in the door of a skilled nursing home. Witnessing decline in mass is not a pretty sight,” Mertens said. “As an ombudsman, I am able to get past that image and on to knowing individuals who have a life story as interesting as any novel and who still have lessons to share.

“Sometimes new volunteers begin with the mindset that they are going to come in and save the day right away. But it’s not always like that. What often makes the biggest difference is paying attention to the mundane, everyday things. Can the resident reach their call light? Do they have enough water? How does the food taste? Checking on these little things can mean a lot to a resident.”

Now that her children are grown, Mertens explains that volunteering helps give a sense of structure to her life and keeps her mental abilities sharp. She also finds advocating for residents of long-term care facilities to be a great avenue for self-reflection: “I find that there is something healthy about taking part in the transition from life to death.” From her many years of serving as an ombudsman, she’s learned that the ability to create happiness is possible in any situation: “Advocating for people in their later years makes you think about how you want to be as you grow older.”

Mertens described many of the people she’s met in long-term care facilities as “role models.” For her, the courage and joy she sees in many residents is deeply inspiring. As she reflects on her own aging, she says she hopes to continue to smile, and create a sense of self-confidence and contentment. Most importantly, she plans to continue to project the attitude that “life can be joyful even up to the last minute.”

When asked about how she views her role as an advocate for the elderly, Mertens smiled and humbly responded that more than anything it is a “privilege”: “Knowing that my going in once a week is contributing to the welfare of the elderly is what keeps me doing this work.”

At 81 years old, Mertens plans to retire as an ombudsman soon. She hopes other community members will get involved with the program: “With the Baby Boomer generation coming into retirement, we are going to need more people to advocate for the elderly.” For retired people, Mertens explained that volunteering with the Ombudsman Program is an excellent way to create structure and purpose in life and keep up one’s mental abilities. She also knows it can be a source of great inspiration to see people who have overcome physical disabilities and are still creating joy and happiness in their life. She added that the life stories one will hear about in long-term care facilities are far more interesting and exciting than anything you could read in a book or see in a film.

The Ombudsman Program is currently in great need of new volunteers. If you are compassionate, caring, self-motivated, and dedicated to making a difference in the lives of long-term care residents in San Luis Obispo County, please consider becoming a volunteer with the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program.

For more information on how to get involved with the program, contact Carly Fox at 785-0132 or CFLTCOMB17@kcbx.net.

Carly Fox is a Long-Term Care Ombudsman volunteer coordinator. Send comments to rmiller@newtimesslo.com.