The ombudsman's office in the Baltimore County Department of Aging gets 150 or more calls a week from senior citizens in trouble, but soon may have troubles of its own as the battle over the federal budget threatens heavy cuts in spending for social programs.
The three-member ombudsman program headed by Linda Myers is one safety net that might be snatched away or curtailed.
Charles L. Fisher Jr., director of the Department of Aging, said he expects to lose about $400,000 from his $8.5 million budget -- $2 million is from federal sources -- which would be enough to severely damage an already tight operation. He is reluctant to say the ombudsman program is among those that will be cut, but there are zeros on the budget line next to its name.
"We're not going to walk away from nursing home residents, but something will have to happen when we find out what the final figures will be," he said. "Layoffs would be a last resort, but I can't say how we'll juggle the money until we know what it is. There are zeros now because the ombudsman service is being folded into another program, but we'll have to restructure something."
Mr. Fisher's dilemma is reflected in every department of every municipality in the country, and his ombudsman program is just a small example of the loss the county's aging population could face.
In the meantime, Ms. Myers plows on, solving problems and answering questions. She worries more about her constituents than she does about her own employment future.
"The elderly are our most helpless citizens, next to the very young," Ms. Myers said. "They must be protected, and treated with dignity and kindness."
Ms. Myers has problems like these to handle:
* Staff members of a nursing home in the county were heating bathwater in a microwave because the home's system wasn't producing enough hot water. The home was ordered to correct the problem immediately or face losing its state license.
* A man slapped his demented wife repeatedly when she wouldn't eat dinner. Ms. Myers negotiated a deal barring the man from visiting his wife in her nursing home unless another relative was present.
* A nursing home resident complained that he rarely saw the doctor who was supposed to visit regularly. No wonder. The doctor was coming after 10 p.m., when the man was asleep. The doctor signed his chart and collected his fee anyway. The doctor was asked to come when patients were awake.
Ms. Myers said her calls have tripled since she became director of the ombudsman program eight years ago, reflective of the growth in population of the county's elderly.
"There are 140,000 people 60 or over in the county," she said. Seven thousand people are in the county's nursing homes, and that population is also growing rapidly.
The department has responsibility for 45 nursing homes and six assisted-living units.
"There are still some bad nursing homes in the county, and we couldn't handle this heavy flow without help from volunteers," Ms. Myers said.
One of these volunteers is Stan Idzi, 53, a retired furniture maker tTC who spends as many as 20 hours a week visiting nursing and retirement homes.
"I made every mistake in getting my own mother settled in a home, so when I saw an ad seeking volunteers, I answered it," he said.
A 25-hour training program sponsored by the Department of Aging helped him understand the problems of the elderly and how to handle them.
"I wasn't aware of the physical and mental changes they go through, and the problems they confront in a situation that requires a complete change in their lifestyle," he said.
His services are so valuable that home administrators call on him to help them with problems.
"That is what is so great about the ombudsman," said Debbie Sokol, administrator for Milford Manor Nursing Home in Pikesville. "I can call, and Stan will come and help me out."
"Care of the elderly is a very complex matter," Ms. Myers said. "You have family dynamics, which sometimes interfere with elderly care. You have scattered families, which might mean someone in Denver is trying to monitor his mother's care in a home in Baltimore County. And you have people living longer, and becoming mentally and physically infirm."
Another problem is the complicated system families have to deal with.
"They don't know where to begin when problems arise," Ms. Myers said. "They fear retribution on the patient if they complain to the home, or worry that the patient will be ejected from the home. All our complaints are handled anonymously, and we know how to cover our tracks so the complainant can't be pinpointed."
The ombudsman phone number is (410) 887-4200.