Jane Watkins isn't shy when it comes to advocating for the elderly.

As a volunteer with the Humboldt-Del Norte Long Term Care Ombudsmanship Program, Watkins is often the person who speaks up for the residents at the Crescent City Nursing and Rehabilitation facility when disputes arise. But she also makes regular visits to the facility, talking with whoever happens to be in the TV room or the games room or the corridors.

"I've really gotten close to a couple of them in there, and when I go in there they just kind of light up," Watkins said. "Whether they have Alzheimer's or dementia, they may not know who I am or they may think I'm a family member, and that's fine with me. They're very happy because somebody's seeing them."

Watkins is currently the only ombudsman volunteer in Del Norte County, covering 162 residents in local skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, according to Suzi Fregeau, who manages the program. More volunteers are sorely needed, Fregeau said.

"There are currently only two facilities up in Del Norte, but I can assure you there are multiple problems that must be addressed to assure these seniors get their rights respected and get the care they need," she said, referring to Crescent City Nursing and Rehabilitation and Addie Meedom House, the local assisted-living facility. "We need more advocates in Del Norte County."

The Humboldt-Del Norte Long Term Care Ombudsmanship Program, which is under the Area 1 Agency on Aging, is a federal and state-mandated program staffed by volunteers. Ombudsmen make regular visits to local long-term care facilities to monitor the quality of care and keep residents apprised of their rights, according to Fregeau.

The ombudsman regularly investigates complaints of elder abuse, working with state licensing, law enforcement and Adult Protective Services, Fregeau said. They can also address other complaints, but only at the resident's request, she said.

"It's our job to encourage the resident to speak up," Frebeau said. "We cannot do anything for a resident unless they've indicated that it's OK for us to help them."

Other services ombudsmen provide include witnessing the signing of advance healthcare directives for nursing facility residents. They can also recommend changes in laws, regulations and policies related to the rights of residents, according to Fregeau.

Those interested in becoming an ombudsman must undergo a minimum of 36 hours of training and be willing to put in 10andndash;12 hours of volunteering a month, Fregeau said.

"The hours are almost the same as an administrator in a residential care facility," she said, referring to the training required. "The payment is the joy that we bring to the residents when they know somebody is there to advocate for them. You really need to want to do this."

Watkins said she became an ombudsman about two years ago. She said she had been retired for about a year as activity director at the Addie Meedom House and felt being an ombudsman was something she really wanted to pursue.

Watkins has been Del Norte's only ombudsman volunteer since she started the program. She said she usually works with Crescent City Nursing and Rehab while Fregeau comes up from Eureka and visits the Addie Meedom House.

"People needing extra help was something that was near and dear to my heart," Watkins said. "I get in there at least once a month, but I try to get in two or three times a month, my schedule permitting."

Even though the training is intense, Watkins said she thinks that anyone who gives the program a try would like being an ombudsman. Training is available online and every now and then Fregeau will hold a training in Crescent City, Watkins said.

Watkins added that even though they may work with residents who are living with dementia and Alzheimer's, volunteers should just be themselves.

"Just walk up and start talking to them," she said. "There is a section in the training that does address that. The more you are standoffish, the more they pick up on that."

For more information about the Humboldt-Del Norte Long Term Care Ombudsman Program or to volunteer, call 707-269-1330. More information about the program is also available atwww.a1aa.org/programs-and-services/ombudsman.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.