Guardians needed to look out for seniors

"Many nursing home residents in R.I. never see a visitor."

Guest Column: Patricia A. M. Vinci
The volunteer guardians of the RI Volunteer Guardianship Program develop many skills and qualities sought in the job market. More

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Guardians needed to look out for seniors

"Many nursing home residents in R.I. never see a visitor."

Guest Column: Patricia A. M. Vinci
Posted 3/26/12

The volunteer guardians of the RI Volunteer Guardianship Program develop many skills and qualities sought in the job market.

Decision-maker; communicator; observer; problem-solver; team-builder; compassionate empathizer: a guardian uses all of these abilities. Volunteer guardians also have a chance to change lives. Many dementia-afflicted seniors with low incomes need volunteer guardians to help with health care decisions when there are no family members filling that role.

Volunteer guardians trained and supported by the RI Volunteer Guardianship Program (VGP) become court-appointed, surrogate decision-makers for the many frail elders the VGP serves statewide.

Many elderly nursing home residents in our state never see a visitor. They have no one in their lives except for their caregivers. Some have outlived their relatives and friends. Others have family unable to take an active role because of infirmity or advanced age. In some cases, families are not willing or suitable.

Volunteer guardians can change the consequences of such circumstances because they are legally authorized to decide what is in the best interest of the senior, the “ward.” With the orientation, training and ongoing support of the VGP, a volunteer can ensure that someone with dementia is well-cared for and has dignity and comfort at life’s end.

Volunteer guardians in the VGP are not hands-on caregivers. Rather, they stand in the shoes of the ward as the decision-maker in the areas of health care, the appropriateness of the residential setting and the appropriateness of the ward’s social relationships.

Volunteer guardians from the VGP are not in charge of finances. They are “guardians of the person” only. Almost all of the seniors for whom VGP volunteers are sought are permanent residents in skilled-nursing facilities. Some referrals also come from assisted-living communities. Before agreeing to take a case, the interested volunteer visits the senior at the nursing home and talks with the social workers and nurses.

The volunteers have the ward’s team of nurses, social workers, nurse assistants and physicians available for information and support. A volunteer’s time commitment varies, but guardians should visit their wards at least once a month.

People drawn to the VGP are compassionate and understanding and want to make a difference for a senior with dementia.

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