It's a part of growing old most people don't like to think about — being alone. But two thirds of the 35,000 Kentuckians in long-term care facilities never get a visit from friends or family, according to state officials.
Those without visitors might be the last of a family line, or live too far for loved ones to visit easily, or they may have slipped into the haze of dementia so visitors think a visit won't be remembered, said Kimberly Baker, Kentucky long-term care ombudsman.
But there's a program that matches volunteers with those in need. And this week, National Nursing Home Week, Baker is trying to encourage people to get involved.
There are two ways to help. The Friendly Visitors program is just what its title suggests: volunteers make a commitment to visit an assigned facility for at least four hours each month. The Certified Ombudsman trains volunteers to be advocates for patient rights as well as a welcomed visitor.
Kentucky has 143 certified ombudsmen and 72 friendly visitors, Baker said. The goal is to get at least one volunteer in every county and eventually a volunteer assigned to the each of the 471 long-term care facilities in the state.
"We want to make sure that nobody is forgotten," she said. "Sometimes it is just the touch of a hand that means everything."
Tending the spirit is important but, Baker said, the Certified Ombudsman program goes beyond that.
"Unfortunately we see cases of abuse and neglect and exploitation," she said. The volunteers are educated about patients rights and how to spot trouble and advocate for residents.
Last year, she said, staff members and the volunteers office investigated 6,274 complaints. When serious problems are found, the information is passed on to local law enforcement.
But most complaints are resolved by making staff aware there is a problem.
Vanda Chambers knows that things big and small that can make a difference. The Lexington woman has been a certified ombudsman for more than 10 years. Her picture, along with her phone number, is prominently displayed in the two nursing homes she serves — Homestead Nursing Center and Arnette Pritchett Personal Care Home, both in Lexington.
She encourages residents to call whenever they have an issue. And she makes frequent unannounced visits to make sure she is truly seeing how the facility is running.
She became interested in the work while caring for three aunts who were in nursing homes.
"I couldn't always be there," she said. "The ombudsman served me well."
So now she volunteers about 40 hours a month. She tries to encourage residents to talk to the staff about their problems but some are so afraid of rocking the boat they are reluctant to even say there is an issue, for example, with getting their bath in a timely manner.
When she talks to staff, she said, she makes it clear, "I'm not there just to find something wrong. That's not my goal. I let them know that I am there for the resident and that when I bring a problem to them I just hope that it can get resolved fairly quickly."
She finds joy in small successes such as helping a resident find a missing TV remote or making sure a woman gets the Jell-O she wanted for dinner. And she's held the hand of a dying stranger.
"Those are days when I leave with a heavy heart," she said.
The work is not for everyone, she said. But Chambers, who is also a minister, thinks she'll continue to do this work as long as she is able.
"I'm a widow," said Chambers, who described herself as a senior citizen but declined to give her age. "It's fulfilling to me at this stage in my life to make someone smile."
Baker said the need for volunteers is growing as Baby Boomers enter their senior years. But that also means there are more potential volunteers. It takes compassion and commitment, she said, and can be challenging.
"It's not like going to the Humane Society where you are going to see warm, fuzzy puppies," she said.
The volunteers, "kind of remind me of firefighters because they are brave, they are going into a place looking for that person who needs them," she said. "Everybody wants to feel like they matter and that somebody remembers them."