Merlene Davis: Nursing home ombudsmen connect patient and care

Nursing home ombudsman Madge Lynn, left, trained volunteer Sherry Johnson, who visits Sayre Christian Village resident Lelia Schwenker once a month. "It doesn't matter what she does, it suits me fine," Schwenker said of Johnson.
Nursing home ombudsman Madge Lynn, left, trained volunteer Sherry Johnson, who visits Sayre Christian Village resident Lelia Schwenker once a month. "It doesn't matter what she does, it suits me fine," Schwenker said of Johnson.

For more than 25 years, Madge Lynn has visited residents of area nursing homes, shed more than a few tears, and laughed long and hard.

She is an ombudsman with the non-profit Nursing Home Ombudsmen Agency of the Bluegrass, Inc., and, when asked why she has served so long, she will offer a response that could easily serve as a commercial.

"I believe in what we do," Lynn said. "I believe in empowering residents to resolve their own concerns. I believe in alerting the community to the needs of nursing home residents, and I love to hear their stories."

After talking with Lynn for a while you realize this is not a practiced answer, but a life lived. Lynn, 74, of Lexington, serves as an ombudsman for about 50 residents of Sayre Christian Village Nursing Home. She has worked in many of the other long-term-care facilities in this area, too.

Sherry Culp, executive director of the agency, said the program has 33 ombudsmen, and most are women who have retired and are looking to serve. Each receives an hourly wage of $7.25 to $9.25, depending on their duties. The number of hours they work depends on the size of the facility they serve and the number of residents.

"We want them to keep an unpredictable schedule," Culp said, explaining they need to be able to meet family members or monitor services, and often that requires work during non-business hours.

The service is free.

There were only four ombudsmen when Lynn started, and she is one of the longest-serving at the agency. Ombudsmen's responsibilities range from visiting to advocating for residents a facility is trying to evict. Lynn has dealt with serious problems such as bed sores and neglect, which includes staff not visiting a resident's room for four or five hours.

Once, a resident bemoaned the loss of a red blouse that was part of a set. Lynn searched the laundry, found the blouse and triumphantly presented it to the woman.

"She said, 'Why would I wear an ugly blouse like that?' " Lynn recalled, shaking her head. "Her name was written in the back of it."

On another occasion, Lynn said a man who had been "really unkind" to his children and others was dying in a nursing home. He told her he was truly sorry for his behavior.

After a visit, she left behind her pink sweater because she had gotten too warm. "He died with that pink sweater as his pillow," Lynn said.

Over the years, she has cried more times than she can count. "I've left many times crying and worrying about a resident," she said. "Sometimes the angels take a long time coming for the dying."

"Madge has such a good relationship with the residents; she can come in and talk to them, and they will tell her things that they may not tell us," said Lori Payne, Sayre director of nursing.

"If she sees something wrong, she tells us," said Mary Jo Coker, Sayre interim administrator. "If she sees something right, she tells us. You don't always see ombudsmen as involved as she is."

Because of people like Lynn, the agency is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Former ombudsmen, consumers, family members and dignitaries will be on hand. It will be a chance to learn more about long-term-care facilities.

"I want them to know that we are here," Culp said. "It is really sad when people make long-term-care decisions and they don't know that we are here to give them information about that. We can show them how to select a nursing home and how to pay for it."

Information is also available for anyone wanting to volunteer to visit nursing home residents through the Friendly Volunteer Visitor program. Although there are no openings for ombudsmen, the agency welcomes more Friendly Visitors, Culp said.

Sherry Johnson, a retired teacher of 38 years, joined that visitor program last year. After Johnson was trained, Lynn matched her with Sayre resident Lelia Schwenker, 88, whom she visits at least once a week and sometimes brings homemade treats to.

"She is so well-rounded," Schwenker said. "It doesn't matter what she does, it suits me fine."

Johnson hugged her and said, "This is good for anyone who has a heart for people. You get a new friend."

Sometimes bringing dignity to a resident is just that simple.

"I know I have done the very best I can when I leave the facility," Lynn said. "I've spoken to someone who didn't have a visitor. I've seen that someone had water that didn't. I've held a resident who was crying because her husband was ill.

"But all of that is through a connection. If I don't have a good connection, I can't empower," she said.