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Bill Griffith: He's every senior's Ombuddy


The Long Term Care Ombudsman program needs volunteers in East County to serve senior residents

Ombudsman may be hard to pronounce, but most seniors living in long-term care facilities within the Gresham area know him by name — Bill Griffith.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Volunteer Ombudsman Bill Griffith checks in regularly with residents including Dorothy Oberg, who lives at Greshams Wynwood of Mt. Hood assisted living community. He's the only Gresham resident certified as a Long-Term Care Ombudsman volunteer, an Oregon-wide program serving senior residents.

It is required by state law that his name and number be posted on a wall in every nursing home, adult foster care, residential and assisted living facility within Gresham.

Rooted in the Old Norse word "umboosmaor," the term ombudsman essentially means “representative,” but nowadays, Griffith just calls himself resident advocate.

His job is to make sure residents are happy and to respond to their complaints.

“I am a volunteer, but I work for the residents,” said Griffith, 66 and retired. “I do what they ask me to do within my scope.”

Griffith, who has lived in the area for the past 14 years, is the middle man, problem solver and peacemaker between residents with concerns and corporate management or often, families of residents.

For instance, one day at the Wynwood of Mt. Hood, an assisted living facility off Southeast Stark Street and 252nd Avenue, management decided wheelchairs and powerchairs would no longer be allowed in the dining room because they were obstructing the pathways of food servers.

Residents who relied on such devices for mobility were alarmed. Some refused to get out of their chairs. Wynwood resident Dorothy Oberg called Griffith. Griffith arrived, heard the concerns of residents and relayed them to Jerri Gray, Wynwood executive director.

The next day the issue was resolved. Wheelchairs and powerchairs were allowed back in the dining room. Walkers would be cleared so that servers had enough room to maneuver around the tables.

“It is important you have someone you can talk to in case you have a concern,” said Oberg, who joined the facility last March and is chairwoman of Wynwood's Resident Council.

Previously, the council was overlooked by management, but Griffith helped put residents back in control of the monthly meeting where residents raise concerns and run committees such as Bible study and Gardening Club.

“They have a very strong voice in their environment, which is the way it should be,” Griffith said.

Good communication is key. So is ensuring residents understand they have the right to be heard.

While management is wrapped up in running the facility and reaping a profit, seniors are afraid if they make waves or say anything, there will be repercussions, Griffith said.

“Losing your independence to whatever degree is frightening,” he said. “Imagine yourself in a group environment where there is meal times and times for bathing — it's scary.”

A passion for seniors, always

Griffith has been dealing in senior program-related issues since 1975.

A native Oregonian raised in Lake Oswego, he is a Vietnam combat veteran with a bachelor's degree in business and public health from Portland State University. After college, Griffith got a job working for the state as a surveyor for the health division, inspecting and licensing nursing homes.

“Back then, nursing homes were not well thought of,” Griffith said. Unhappy regulating and not being able to actually affect seniors' quality of life, he became a nursing home administrator for Village Manor in Wood Village.

“My passion is seniors, always has been,” he said.

The Outlook featured a story about Griffith's passion in 1979, the beginning of an era of change in Oregon's senior care industry.

In the 1970s, assisted living was just being developed in Oregon. Heading the senior movement was then University of Oregon law graduate Ron Wyden. As co-founder of the Oregon chapter of Gray Panthers, an elder advocacy group, his concern was working for the betterment of senior issues.

“Oregon has always been on the forefront of progressive care and services for seniors,” Griffith said. Still, he said, our national mindset of how we treat seniors — by putting them in facilities — juxtaposes the rest of the world, which seems to hold elders in a more honorable status.

Ten years after President Nixon’s Eight Point Initiative to improve nursing home care, a national program, the Long Term Care Ombudsman Office, was established in Oregon.

Today, nearly 200 certified volunteers serve 43,000 residents in long-term facilities every year. Last year, Ombudsman made close to 13,500 visits and documented 29,000 plus hours.

Ombudsmen and women wanted in East County

“We need more volunteers in East County,” said Gretchen Jordan, coordinator of volunteers for the Office of the Long Term Care Ombudsman.

Griffith, also a grandfather and avid motorcyclist, became an ombudsman volunteer three years ago, a process that requires five days of training, the ability to attend monthly meetings and volunteer five to 10 hours a week.

Volunteers advocate, educate and investigate on behalf of the residents of long-term care facilities, identifying complaints and concerns and protecting their rights and dignity.

Griffith gets calls from two nursing homes, one assisted living facility, one residential care facility and 22 adult foster homes.

During his first visits, Griffith said he noticed multiple problems with administration and frequently received complaints from residents.

According to Oregon's Ombudsman program, the top 10 resident complaints are food/menu concerns, discharge/eviction procedures, medication problems, gross neglect, dignity/respect, inadequate care plans, delayed assistance, improper handling of accidents, billing and lost, stolen or destroyed property,.

But by offering his support and expertise, Griffith said the facilities have improved. They are clean and well run, and residents are happier, he said.

“Residents are so sweet and so glad to see you," he said.

“We have found him to be very receptive and if he doesn't know, he'll find out and get back to us,” Oberg said. “He's an ace in the hole.”

Griffith said the program needs more volunteers “because we need to reach as many seniors as possible.”

“It is rewarding to be able to help other people, especially seniors,” Griffith said. “I can't see Oregon being as successful as it is without a strong Ombudsman program.”