Benson Nadell brings compassion, curiosity, and decades-long expertise to his role as Co-Director of Felton Institute’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program. A federally mandated visiting advocacy program, Ombudsmen are professionally trained staff and volunteers who advocate on behalf of older adults and people with disabilities living in long-term care settings such as nursing homes, board and care homes, and assisted living facilities. The program provides invaluable support to those they serve. Mr. Nadell, who began his tenure with the program in 1986, reflects “as residents share their stories with us, they find that Ombudsmen are their advocates who actually listen.” Emphasizing, “everyone has a story which, with age and memory, is refracted through a life of experience: ombudsmen are attentive to those passing years, and responses to the present.”
A Voice for the Unheard
Ombudsmen ensure that residents are treated with dignity and that their concerns are handled efficiently and with care. Visiting ombudsmen identify and investigate problems and complaints made by residents and their families. Resident concerns include an array of issues, from food preferences to daily activities to claims of abuse and neglect. “The word ‘advocacy,’” Mr. Nadell explains, comes from the Latin word advocare “which means to ‘give voice to.’” Ombudsman do just that and more. “Our Ombudsmen visit residents every week and talk to every resident in their bed and in their wheelchair.” He adds, “we collect personal stories. We engage with them, and we meet so many interesting people.”
Residents range in cognitive and physical abilities. “We advocate for people who are unable to verbalize. We advocate for people who have dementia or have no capacity to communicate. And we have the authority to do so under the Older Americans Act.” This federally mandated Act created in 1965, provides critical services for older adults that include job training, senior centers, caregiver support, and funding for the Ombudsman Program, among other services. The Ombudsman Program is mutually beneficial, empowering all who engage with it.
The program not only positively impacts residents but is immensely rewarding for staff and volunteers. Mr. Nadell explains, “we sit down and talk to people. We find out what high school they went to, or what they like to do.” He goes on to say, “I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to be able to engage with them- the elderly and disabled, many of whom don’t get listened to.” This interest and curiosity began when Mr. Nadell was a college student.
Cultivating a Compassionate Heart and Mind
Prior to his tenure with the Ombudsman Program, Mr. Nadell’s course work as a university academic provided a rich tapestry of experiences and engagement with various cultures and communities. He began early, the son of a doctor, as life-long activist. In high school he marched against nuclear testing and for civil rights in the 1960s.
His interest in older adults, he explains, began as a student at Columbia University. As a graduate student he studied anthropology (working towards a dissertation which he never completed) and conducted fieldwork in Japan, interviewing the older adult generation in a multi-generational Japanese village about their memories and experiences of the changing landscape and demographics of their suburbanizing community. “I got a really complicated picture of their memories of what their village was like before it became assimilated into the nearby town as a suburb.” He explains, “I got so impressed with what the elderly Japanese individuals were telling me about the past before World War Two, that I focused on a complex ethnography of different generations as seen by the older inhabitants.” He surmises, “Life anywhere can be heard through a set of stories and memories.” This academic experience inspired Mr. Nadell’s work with the Ombudsman program – listening to residents’ concerns, and with analysis, resolving present-day uncertainties in institutional settings.
The Power of Advocacy
Among the many successes the program has had throughout the years, Mr. Nadell recounts advocating for a woman who had been in a serious car accident. Due to her injuries, she had been placed in a nursing home to recuperate but the home was refusing to discharge her, expressing concerns her own home would not provide adequate support. There were barriers to communication as the patient was a Cantonese speaker. The Ombudsman Program came to her assistance, providing an array of support. They provided a translator to communicate with nursing staff as well as assisted in obtaining the necessary safety features to be installed in her home to accommodate her injuries. “This woman was an example of advocating based on disability rights. She didn’t need to be in an institution for the rest of her life,” Mr. Nadell explains. “She was too young. She had a family who was able and willing to take care of her.” Ombudsmen provide unyielding dedication and support to those going through challenging times. The heart and soul of the program, they hail from a variety of backgrounds.
Ombudsman volunteers are as diverse as the residents they serve. They go through extensive training to become certified by the State of California and are comprised of psychologists, students pursuing a degree in social work, and retired persons, among an array of compassionate individuals. Actively recruiting volunteers, Mr. Nadell is especially interested in those who are bilingual, such as Russian speakers, as well as LGBTQ+ volunteers. “We see this as a great learning experience,” he explains. Adding, “I think one of the prerequisites for being really engaged with the aging and disabled communities is curiosity. It’s listening to people from their point of view by and coming from a place of empathy rather than an advisory, elitist, or expert role.”
As Mr. Nadell reflects on his decades-long commitment to supporting and serving some of the country’s most vulnerable individuals he surmises, “I’d like to be able to impart my wisdom and my experience to the staff that I supervise.” A lifelong learner, Mr. Nadell encourages others to be curious and seek knowledge, important attributes of Felton’s Ombudsman Program. It’s also paramount to treat residents with dignity and acknowledge their individuality. “When people turn a certain age, they don’t necessarily give up who they are,” Mr. Nadell elucidates, “though some might have cognitive deficits, they are who they are through their lifespan, and they must be heard and with attentiveness.”
Your participation in the Ombudsman Program can make a real difference in the life of residents in long-term care facilities. Learn about volunteering by visiting our program page and filling out our short volunteer inquiry form online, so that we can get in touch with you.
You are also welcome to call us at (415) 751-9788 or email us at email@example.com with any questions or for more information.
About Felton Institute: Founded in 1889, Felton Institute responds to human needs by providing cutting edge, evidence-based mental health and social services that transform lives. Felton Institute is a tax-exempt organization registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit under EIN 94-1156530.
Offering more than 50 acclaimed and honored programs that address homelessness, mental health, prenatal, adolescent, adult, and senior needs, Felton Institute provides services in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, and Monterey counties. Felton’s social services and programs utilize the latest scientific research, combining cultural sensitivity, deep respect for client and staff, and a commitment to social justice.
Felton is the oldest non-sectarian and nonprofit social services provider in the City and County of San Francisco. For over a century, Felton Institute has been at the forefront of social service innovation, pioneering new approaches to meet underserved populations’ emerging needs. At the heart of our work is the belief that individuals and families in crisis must have access to services and resources to help them build on their inherent strengths and develop self-sufficiency. www.felton.org