Step Up to Help Seniors for the Family Service Agency
Nonprofit in Search of Long-Term Care Ombudsman Volunteers
By Leslie Dinaberg
‘One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow, we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.’
‘As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.’
Providing a voice to the vulnerable is the role of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman representative, a volunteer program of the Family Service Agency (fsacares.org). Through regular visits to Santa Barbara County’s 14 skilled nursing facilities and 119 assisted-living facilities for the elderly, Ombudsman representatives get to know the residents and advocate to improve their quality of life.
The program covers the entire county, from Carpinteria to Santa Maria, with more than 5,000 people under its watch. “We are the extra pair of eyes and ears who help them and advocate for them,” said Marco Quintanar, who started working in elder care as a kitchen worker in a long-term care facility 30 years ago. Today, he is a leader in senior care and advocacy as the supervisor for the Ombudsman program, visiting facilities himself as well as providing training and support to volunteers.
Retired aerospace engineer Mike Leu would be considered a “super volunteer” by any measure. “I was looking for a way to stay active and reapply my skills to something that was new and useful,” said Leu, who stumbled on a newspaper article about the program (run by a different agency at the time) about 10 years ago and thought it looked interesting. He reached out, was trained, and jumped right in, enjoying the work so much that he now covers 23 different facilities and puts in about 70-80 hours a month in volunteer time.
But both Ombudsman superstars caution that prospective volunteers should not be intimidated by Leu’s level of work. Volunteers can commit a little time, or a lot, depending on their interest and availability.
“Part of the beauty of the Ombudsman program is you can scale it up or you can scale it down pretty much as far as you want,” said Leu. “If you only want to put in a few hours a week at three or four small facilities, you can. And then, if you’re like me and you’re out of control, you put in a lot!”
Today, there are just seven volunteers covering the entire county, so Quintanar hopes to double that number at his next Ombudsman volunteer training this fall. “You have to be wanting to help other people,” said Leu of what they’re looking for in volunteers, which also includes being self-motivated, comfortable in communicating with people, and then ready to solve problems in complex situations. “The reward in this thing is you’re demonstrably improving somebody’s quality of life.”
In his 30 years, Quintanar has seen a wide range of residents and issues. “Nowadays, because of the advances in technology and everything, people are living longer,” he said, which means caregivers have to deal not just with aging but with advanced mental illnesses, like someone living for 20 years with Alzheimer’s. “That makes things harder because … they have some behavioral challenges. It is hard on the families and it is hard on the resident and hard on everybody who is around them. It’s not their fault, but they need care. So that’s why we are there.”
Both men agree that this work is very rewarding. “If you make a difference in the life of someone, even just listening to that person, that makes you feel very good,” said Quintanar. “And you don’t need anybody to say thank you.”
To learn more about becoming a Certified Ombudsman volunteer, or other ways to support Family Service Agency’s programs for seniors, call Marco Quintanar at (805) 922-1236 or visit volunteer4seniors.org.