When Kathy Gannoe walked through the doorway of a nursing home in 1984 as a district ombudsman and the executive director of the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass, she knew she had found her life's work.
"I really believe in my heart this is the place God wanted me to be," she said.
Gannoe had never thought she'd work with the elderly. Her work experience for the previous 10 years had been with the mentally handicapped. In fact, the ombudsman position was in third place on her list when her husband, Bob, transferred to Lexington from Gallatin, Tenn.
She wasn't chosen for the first position and declined the second before becoming executive director on June 1, 1984.
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"I never wanted to work with older persons, but as soon as I stepped my foot in the door of the nursing home, my heart just opened up," Gannoe recalled. "I had found my place."
She has not only stayed in that place for nearly 25 years, she has made it better.
"I saw people who needed someone to speak for them, and I knew I could do that," Gannoe said. With on-the-job training, a very patient board of directors, a willing staff and a helpful community, she said, residents are better off, now watched over by 33 ombudsmen instead of the four when she took the job.
However, it is time for her to retire, she said. Time to pass the baton to a woman who Gannoe said is quite capable of continuing the work.
That work is all about making the rights of nursing home residents the focus of the agency. Under Gannoe's leadership, the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass is nationally recognized as the model for similar programs everywhere.
"The genius of our program," Gannoe told researchers from the Institute of Medicine who were studying the ombudsman program in general, "is that first, we hire older people, and second, our people live near the nursing homes they visit."
Gannoe said that core group of "absolutely fantastic" facility ombudsmen is her proudest achievement. "They are better trained than any other group in the nation," she said.
Gannoe also developed a brochure with guidelines to help residents and their family members recognize signs of compromises in the quality of care being given.
In 2007, Gannoe was awarded the Howard Hines Advocacy Award, a national honor given to effective advocates on the local level. The award highlighted her success in developing a litigation handbook for attorneys; in helping to create a Medicare/Medicaid rights booklet; and in starting a multi-year analysis of Kentucky's protective services that resulted in changes in the state's elder-abuse law.
She played an integral role in changing three federal regulations as well.
"I had ideas, and I carried things through," she said, dodging the praise. "But every single thing that has been done in this agency is because a resident had a need and we tried to address it."
"The federal law says our job is to identify, investigate and work to resolve complaints," Gannoe said. "I have a staff, and we monitor laws and educate the community. Whatever a resident is having a problem with, from cold coffee to the most heinous physical abuse, we work to resolve it within the facility unless it is something the law requires we report to regulators or if it is something we can't work out because the facility doesn't cooperate."
Robynn Pease, a NHOA board member, said she first met Gannoe in 1994, when Pease was a graduate student in search of a volunteer opportunity.
"She has so much integrity, and she was honest and dignified about the work she did," Pease said. "You didn't have to worry that Kathy was going against the law or the spirit of the agency.
"She understands the law and uses it in the defense of residents," Pease continued. "I see that as a reflection of her integrity and dedication to the agency.
"Gosh," she said. "I wish more leaders were like her."
Gannoe said she feels very comfortable with her retirement because of the competency of her replacement.
Sherry Culp, the current program director who has worked with NHOA for 10 years, will become executive director on March 2. "Kathy has really taught me that there is always some way to work to resolve the problem," Culp said. "She is so centered in who she is and what she's here to do."
There have been many occasions, however, when Gannoe received more criticism than praise.
"I'd say she has hurt some feelings over the years, shooting too straight with people," Culp said.
"I just hate to lose," Gannoe said. "I just hate to lose on the part of a resident."
Gannoe said there is an inherent conflict between a business making money and people needing care. "That's why we have regulations," she said.
And that's why she uses them to protect residents or enhance their lives.
As for life after retirement, Gannoe is not sure what that will entail.
She knows she wants to join a serious Bible study and to get in shape. She also knows she will continue to help out at her church.
Her daughter, however, wants her to work with refugee resettlement or help establish a day care center for Hispanic children.
Her husband wants her to consider joining him in disaster relief projects in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"I think the murder mysteries at the library are calling to me," she said, laughing.
"From my faith position, I know that God has something for me," Gannoe said. "I'm just going to wait to see what it is."
If her past is any indication, she'll know when she finds it.