State watchdog for the elderly quits

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state watchdog for the elderly has resigned, becoming the third person to leave the post since 1999.

John Richard, a former chief municipal prosecutor in Anchorage, served as Alaska's long-term-care ombudsman for about nine months.

Richard said he found it difficult to improve conditions for the elderly, including those at the Anchorage Pioneers' Home. The job is so hard, he said, that he is not sure anyone could succeed at it.

''It has involved a lot more than maybe I've got in me at this point of my life,'' said Richard, 51. ''It's infinitely more complex than I thought it was.''

Richard's frustration with the work is understandable, said Jeff Jessee, executive director of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which oversees the ombudsman.

''It's a very vulnerable population. They present a lot of issues that are not necessarily black and white,'' Jessee said. He said Richard was still learning the job but had done good work.

The long-term-care ombudsman is responsible for investigating and resolving complaints at 15 nursing homes statewide and many more assisted-living homes, including the six state-run Pioneers' Homes. Alaska has more than 130 homes licensed specifically for the elderly.

Complaints to the ombudsman can be about problems as small as damp laundry and as serious as unexplained bruises or even death.

Richard said he spent 20 to 25 percent of his time on a single case involving a resident of the Anchorage Pioneers' Home with Alzheimer's disease who he said has suffered from deficient care.

Systemic problems at the Anchorage Pioneers' Home have gone on too long, said Lisa Caress-Beu, president of the Anchorage-based Center for Advocacy for Rights of the Elderly. Residents need help eating but often don't get it, she said. They need help getting to the bathroom but often soil their diapers before anyone takes them.

''Their care has continued to decline over all of the ombudsmen who have come and gone,'' said Caress-Beu.

The difficulties as ombudsman aside, the quality of Alaska's assisted-living homes and nursing homes is good compared with that of other states, Richard said.

In 1999, Fran Purdy was forced out of the ombudsman's post for reasons never made public. She had issued a sharply critical report about the Pioneers' Homes pharmacy program.

In 2000, ombudsman Kim Kline resigned after just four months because of what she said was interference in an investigation of a Pioneers' Home. After that, the ombudsman's office was put under the Mental Health Trust to give it more independence. Interference is no longer a problem, Richard said.

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