State Funds Save Senior Care Watchdogs Across Orange County

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The only agency in Orange County that regularly responds to complaints of abuse and neglect of disabled and elderly residents in nursing and assisted-living homes has been able to cobble together state funds to survive for another year.

The nonprofit, Santa Ana-based Council on Aging, through its Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, responds to a variety of complaints, which range from cold food to sexual abuse to stealing Supplemental Security Income checks, said Kathleen Weidner, director of the program.

“One of the big issues is restraints,” said Weidner.

“They’ll have someone in a wheelchair with the sash of their robe tied around them to keep them from falling out or getting out. There’s also chemical restraint, seeing people doped up, especially in some of the smaller facilities. … You go in, and the people are fed and in bed by 6 p.m. and the lights are all out. You think, what the heck? These are adults.”

Insufficient staffing is a common concern.

State licensing authorities are required to inspect such facilities only once a year or every five years, depending on the type of facility, Weidner said.

“If we weren’t there, there would be no one,” she said.

In 2008, the ombudsman program lost all its state funding, which amounted to $500,000. During the next two years, temporary measures restored about half the state funds. In the state budget signed last month, legislators made money available from fees paid by nursing homes cited for violations.

So far the budget crisis hasn’t forced the ombudsman program to respond to fewer complaints, officials said, but staff reduction and fewer people in the field could foster a more lax attitude toward care at facilities.

“Our whole job is to make our presence known so residents know they have someone on their side and so the administrators of the facilities know that we’re looking out for the residents,” Weidner said.

The ombudsman program responded to 1,500 complaints of neglect or abuse in the county’s nearly 1,200 senior living facilities last year. The program’s staff and volunteers made about 6,000 unannounced visits to facilities, attended 640 meetings with residents and validated 340 advance health directives.

While the ombudsman program has no enforcement power, its representatives have the authority to drop in at any time to a senior facility. They reports findings to state licensing offices.

When it comes to care of the elderly and disabled, more budget cutbacks are likely, but ironically cutbacks could trigger an increased need for funding over the long term.

For example, the elimination of adult daycare in California is expected to increase in the number of seniors in nursing home and assisted-living facilities, Weidner said.

Adding to future needs, the senior population is expected to surge as baby boomers begin retiring in large numbers.

— AMY DePAUL

 

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