An ombudsman promotes and protects the rights of residents of nursing homes, assisted living and small board and care homes. When a resident has Alzheimer’s or another type of memory loss or dementia, their focus is on keeping everyone safe.

This is especially true when residents are experiencing behaviors that are challenging.  When a relative with memory loss experiences challenging behaviors—agitation, for example—in your home, your family is the one most affected. When your relative lives in a community, those behaviors can affect others. As well, your relative may be affected by someone else’s behavior. This is a tricky situation. Enter the ombudsman to help sort it out.

Charlie’s wife Lee, a resident in an assisted living’s memory care community, was in the advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She began to be verbally abusive to residents who “were sitting in her chair” or “in her way” as she walked down the hallway. The staff had difficulty managing her behavior and protecting the other residents from her loud verbal assaults.  Another resident’s family filed a complaint with the Ombudsman’s office about Lee’s actions towards her mother. After observing Lee’s behavior, the Ombudsman met with the Director and Charlie to develop a plan of care for Lee. The plan included training staff on how to approach and respond to Lee when she was agitated. The Ombudsman requested staff to communicate and document Lee’s behavior daily. After a few weeks, Lee appeared to respond more favorably to staff and other residents.

What is an Ombudsman?

An Ombudsman is the official who is responsible to ensure that residents are safe and have the rights that are required under The Nursing Home Reform Law of 1987. This law ensures that nursing homes “promote and protect the rights of each resident.” In most states, this law is extended to residents who live in assisted living and small board and care homes.

What does an Ombudsman do?

The primary responsibility of Ombudsman programs is to ensure that residents in long-term care communities—nursing homes, assisted living and smaller board and care homes—have quality of life and care that is needed. An Ombudsman does this by responding and resolving complaints that are received from consumers, usually residents and family members.  An Ombudsman’s advocacy efforts are based on the belief that residents who live in long-term care facilities have the same rights as those who live in the broader community. Ombudsman programs are often referred to as the ‘watch dog’ for long-term care residents.

How do I find an Ombudsman in my area?

To locate your state or local office, contact the National Citizens Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. Or you can search for the Ombudsman program in your area by state or county, for example, Michigan Ombudsman or Los Angeles County Ombudsman. Contact information and responsibilities can also be found on a poster that residential care communities are required to post in their facility.

What kind of things can an Ombudsman help with?

When a resident or a resident’s family have not been able to resolve an issue or concern ‘in house’, a complaint can be filed directly with the Ombudsman program, who will then investigate and attempt to resolve the reported issue. The Ombudsman office can tell you the type of complaints that are handled and what has been filed for facilities in the area. This can be useful information for you as you choose a place for your relative. It can also be helpful to monitor this list once your relative lives in a facility.

The services offered by Ombudsman may vary from state to state. There is no fee for Ombudsman services. Generally speaking, the Ombudsman office can help you:

  • Resolve concerns or issues regarding the quality of care for your relative or other residents
  • Investigate suspected physical, emotional or mental abuse or neglect
  • Investigate possible financial abuse
  • Investigate inadequate staffing or training for the level of care needs of the residents
  • Discuss and resolve a grievance or issue with staff and family members by attending a care planning meeting
  • Provide educational materials to help understand and clarify resident rights as well as policies and procedures for long-term care facilities.

When situations are complex and feelings are running high, an ombudsman offers a way to help sort things out. For families of people with memory loss, this can be a real lifeline.

Beth Spencer and Laurie White