The Alexandria City Council has agreed to join a regional program for the elderly designed to give greater attention to complaints from residents of nursing homes and to ensure better advocacy for the rights of citizens over 65 years of age.
The new program, involving five jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, will operate as an adjunct service to the state's ombudsman for the elderly in Richmond, a position that was set up following 1978 federal legislation mandating states to create such programs.
Besides investigating complaints from residents of longterm care facilities and their families, the regional program, to be headquartered in Fairfax County, will provide information to the public, improve state and local laws relating to the elderly, and run volunteer programs to help aged residents.
"I'm delighted," said Moya Atkinson, director of Alexandria's Area Agency on the Aging, of the city council action. "I feel that it's long overdue. We are fortunate in Alexandria to have good nursing homes, however, I think it is important that there be a voice and body outside the system for people to turn to."
Atkinson said the program would also encourage the enlistment of volunteers to help those elderly who have no relative or friend to help them out, she said.
In 1980, there were about65,000 Northern Virginians 65 years and older and their numbers are expected to reach 97,000 by 1990, according to a report prepared by local Northern Virginia agencies on the aging. While figures show that only 5 percent of the nation's elderly live permanently in nursing homes, about 20 percent of those 65 years and older will be in a nursing home or adult-care facility at some point in their lives, the report said.
Residents of nursing homes are a "vulnerable, dependent population in need of both personal advocacy and issue advocacy," the report said. There is an increased need for such advocacy programs because of the national trend toward deregulation that has specifically affected nursing homes and adult-care facilities, it emphasized.
The Alexandria City Council voted last week to give a $15,000 contribution to help fund the$66,440 program, which is expected to get off the ground next April. Each area's contribution is based on its elderly population and the number of nursing home beds located in its jurisdiction. Alexandria has 32 percent of Northern Virginia's population over 65. Fairfax, with the largest 65-plus population (37 percent in Northern Virginia) will provide the largest contribution($28,470) to the ombudsman project.
There are about 4,500 beds in institutions serving the elderly in Northern Virginia, with projected construction bringing that number to about 5,600 by 1986.
Between 1981 and 1983, the Virginia Long Term Care Ombudsman Program in Richmond investigated 85 complaints from residents in Northern Virginia facilities. These complaints related to such things as the right to privacy and dignity, missing possessions and transfers of residents within facilities against their will.
But the ability of the state ombudsman to investigate complaints from Northern Virginia is limited by the fact that there is only one staff person to address grievances. Though none of the complaints were from residents of Alexandria nursing homes, there are city residents living in facilities in other Northern Virginia areas who will be helped by the new regional program, according to a staff review of the ombudsman proposal.
Virginia already has two operational regional ombudsman programs in the Richmond and Petersburg areas. Maryland operates 12 such regional programs. Local officials have found that where regional programs are set up complaints and community involvement on behalf of the elderly increased, leading them to believe that people are more apt to seek help from a local agency than a state one, the report of the area's agencies on aging said.
The regional ombudsman, whose salary will be $27,000 and who will work out of the Fairfax County Office on Aging, will be advised and supported by a Regional Community Advisory Board composed of health care professionals, consumer representatives and health facility officials from each jurisdiction. The participating jurisdictions are the counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Prince William and the city of Alexandria.