Old-Age Wisdom

The state told Virginia Fraser to shut up, but she won't give up on the elderly.

Ritchie decided not to hire a lawyer to fight the suit and never showed up in court to defend himself. Because he failed to appear, the court granted Meridian a default judgment and issued an injunction to prevent Ritchie from making "false and inaccurate" statements about the company.

Ritchie died last fall.

Virginia Fraser recently resigned her position as director of the state ombudsman's office after twenty years.
Anthony Camera
Virginia Fraser recently resigned her position as director of the state ombudsman's office after twenty years.
Senator Sue Windels of Arvada was willing to take on Meridian in the legislature.
Anthony Camera
Senator Sue Windels of Arvada was willing to take on Meridian in the legislature.

Virginia Fraser never expected to become the state ombudsman. But a class project twenty years ago led her to a new career that soon became her life's calling.

In the late 1970s, she was working as an assistant professor at Loretto Heights College in a program for older, non-traditional students. One of the graduation requirements was that students had to work on a community project. Fraser contacted a nursing home near the college and started doing programs there with the students.

About the same time, her elderly mother came down with Alzheimer's. At the time, there was little understanding of the condition. Fraser and a colleague wrote a booklet called "Understanding Senility: A Layperson's Guide" in an effort to help others whose loved ones were suffering from the disease. After an article about the project ran in a local newspaper, more than a hundred people contacted her asking for help. Soon a support group was founded that became the predecessor to today's local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Fraser was in touch with the director of the Colorado Congress of Seniors, which had just been awarded a $20,000 federal grant to start the ombudsman's program. One person would be the ombudsman for Colorado, and Fraser was offered the job.

"I had no idea what I was doing," she recalls. "It was me for the whole state."

The first telephone call she received as state ombudsman was from a panicked RTD driver who was carrying a confused elderly woman. She recalls: "He said, 'I have this woman on the bus who should be in a nursing home. What should I do?'"

Over the years, Fraser built up the program with the use of volunteers and money from both the public and private sectors. The federal Older Americans Act requires every state to have an ombudsman, but the office is structured differently from state to state. In Colorado, the contract to run the ombudsman program has always been awarded to a local nonprofit, in large part to ensure its independence from political pressure. Here the state human services department contracts with the nonprofit Legal Center for People With Disabilities and Older People to run the program.

State funding for the ombudsman program has been flat for several years, but the program has been highly successful at obtaining grants from local foundations to help it continue its work. The Rose Community Foundation has made an especially large commitment.

Colorado's program is often used as an example for other states. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently recognized Colorado's ombudsman's office as among the finest in the country, in particular noting its effective use of volunteers.

"Virginia Fraser has gone beyond what a lot of states do," says Holder, of the National Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. "She's been really creative and accomplished a lot."

One of Fraser's more unusual endeavors was to develop a "residents' rights" bingo game for nursing homes. The game helps staffers and residents who might be bored listening to a lecture learn the same information in a fun way. More than 7,000 copies of the game have been sold to nursing homes all over the country.

Those who work with Fraser say she brought a passion to her work that inspired them. "She was my mentor; she taught me everything I know," says Jayla Sanchez Warren, who supervises the ombudsman program in metro Denver. "The clearest message you get from her is, 'We're here to help the residents. They're our bosses.' The ombudsman program in Colorado is what it is because of her. She's given us a wonderful foundation to build on."

At the same time that Fraser was building up the state ombudsman program, the Nagels were busy building their health-care empire. Recently, they've taken their crusade to keep government away from their business into the heart of the State Capitol.

Ralph and Trish Nagel have opened their checkbooks to Republican politicians at both the state and national levels. They've given $800,000 to the party over the past five years and were important backers of Bill Owens in his run for the governor's office, giving him $23,000 in the weeks before a new law took effect that limited campaign contributions to $1,000. They also gave $1 million to Owens's pet project, the Colorado Institute of Technology.

In addition, the Nagels have contributed to Colorado Concern, a group that funds political advertising independent of candidates, thus exempting contributors from limits on donations. These so-called educational groups are not required to disclose the size or source of their funding.

Trish Nagel's involvement in the selection of Jane Norton as head of the state health department struck many people as a conflict of interest. But Dick Wadhams, the governor's spokesman, says Trish Nagel has not influenced Owens's attitudes toward nursing homes or the ombudsman's office. "They have never talked about that," he says.

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