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SNAP's Long Term Care Ombudsman program serves as safety net for seniors



SNAP Long Term Care Ombudsman program volunteer Sharon Niblock.

Sharon Niblock understands the importance of giving back.

As a volunteer with SNAP's (Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners) Long Term Care Ombudsman program, Niblock serves as a friend and advocate for vulnerable seniors throughout Spokane County. She spends at least four hours a week visiting seniors, making calls and, most importantly, being a reliable friend to many who would otherwise be alone.

"I really believe in this program," said Niblock, a retired teacher who began volunteering as an LTCO in 2007. "I like the challenge of getting issues resolved."

Niblock is one of over 40 LCTO volunteers who accounted for nearly 3,000 visits to assisted living centers, adult family homes and nursing homes in five counties across Eastern Washington last year. The SNAP LTCO program has a presence in close to 300 facilities in Spokane, Pend Oreille, Ferry, Stevens and Whitman counties. Volunteers keep an eye out for problems such as inadequate nutrition, neglect and financial fraud.

From concerns about dehydration to family struggles, Niblock and other volunteers work to mediate challenges with the resident, facility administration and social workers. Issues that require further intervention are referred to organizations like Adult Protective Services and Residential Care Services. The program also supports non-senior residents with disabilities at long-term care sites.

There is a mandatory four-day training for prospective volunteers along with ongoing technical assistance and a support group that meets regularly. The program is always putting the word out for more volunteers. The next sessions of training are scheduled for Sept. 11-12 and 18-19 at SNAP's Ft. Wright Mission Support Center.

Niblock first heard about the LTCO program when her mother was living at a retirement facility. She enlisted SNAP for support and eventually moved her mom to a more suitable location.

"I can relate to the residents and the families," Niblock said. "You learn how to ask the right questions."

LTCO volunteers address concerns by calling a meeting with the resident, a representative from the facility and a relative or guardian of the resident.

"It gives the residents a voice," Linda Petrie, SNAP's LTCO director since 1990, said. Barry Markle, LTCO administrative assistant, serves as the other full-time staff person with Petrie. He has been with SNAP for the past 10 years.

Petrie says the best part of her job is working with the volunteers who make the program run. In SNAP's LTCO Fact Sheet, those who donate time to the cause are described as "fact finders, mediators, problem solvers and advocates." SNAP LTCO volunteers contributed a total of 5,423 hours in 2013.

"I like working with our volunteers," Petrie said. "They are very caring people."

Sometimes the advocacy can be as simple as finding a suitable mattress or making sure a resident has a cup of tea in the afternoon. Whatever form the advocacy takes, the staff and volunteers with the LTCO program are making a difference in the lives of seniors every day.

"Volunteering gives me a purpose," said Niblock. "I don't want to just sit at home all day. The people I work with have taught me how to grow old gracefully. They're thanking me and I should be thanking them."

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