Old-Age Wisdom

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

Nobody knows what's going on inside Colorado's nursing homes better than Virginia Fraser.

One recent morning, Fraser spent several hours visiting the Cherrelyn nursing home in Littleton, introducing herself to residents as their ombudsman. "I'm here to advocate for the people who live here," she told an elderly woman with carefully coiffed red hair, who simply smiled and nodded.

Walking down the corridor of one of the state's largest nursing homes, Fraser stopped to visit with a woman named Dorothy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Dorothy has been in Cherrelyn for several years; Fraser helped her when she needed to move to a new room.

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.
Pinon Management's Jeff Jerebker wonders why the state would try to censor the ombudsman.
Anthony Camera
Pinon Management's Jeff Jerebker wonders why the state would try to censor the ombudsman.

"The ombudsman is a mediator," says Dorothy, who uses a wheelchair. "They showed me a room that was decorated too fancy; it was too feminine. I didn't like it. The ombudsman met with the manager and helped me find this room."

Dorothy enjoys sports and doesn't like the room too hot, unlike many of Cherrelyn's other female residents. With the ombudsman's help, she found a roommate who shared her interests.

"Heaven knows how long things would have gone on without the ombudsman," she says.

For two decades, Fraser served as director of the Colorado Ombudsman Program, which advocates for residents of long-term-care facilities in the state. The ombudsman's office assists seniors, asking them if they're having any problems and taking their complaints to management. Fraser transformed Colorado's ombudsman office from a one-person operation into a widely admired force, a program recognized as one of the best in the country. In the process, Fraser has earned a national reputation among advocates for the elderly.

"She's been a national leader on residents' rights," says Elma Holder, founder of the National Coalition for Nursing Home Reform. "She's always been relied upon to be wise and supportive of other people around the country."

Fraser is in the unusual position of being respected by both the nursing-home industry and its critics.

"I think she's done a wonderful job," says Arlene Miles, head of the Colorado Healthcare Association, which represents 178 nursing homes around the state. "She's dedicated her whole life to working toward positive ways of improving care."

Despite this record of achievement, Fraser stepped down as state ombudsman last month. Her resignation was prompted by a proposal from the Department of Human Services that would have restricted the ombudsman's ability to talk to legislators and the media about problems in Colorado's homes for the elderly.

"The restrictions from the state were getting worse and worse," says Fraser. "It was ridiculous."

By this past spring, Fraser directed a staff of forty paid and a hundred volunteer ombudsmen across Colorado. They are charged with visiting 242 nursing homes as well as 507 personal-care boarding homes, which provide assisted living and other services for the more able-bodied elderly. For many of the 30,000 residents of these facilities, the visiting ombudsman may be the only person who bothers to ask how they are doing and whether they're receiving the care they need. Last year the ombudsman's office collected nearly 12,000 complaints from residents of long-term-care facilities.

The ombudsmen have no legal authority to fine nursing homes or force owners to improve care; they simply act as the residents' eyes and ears and try to get the management to respond. And although the ombudsman program's director prepares an annual report for the Colorado Legislature on issues related to long-term care, she has no real power other than that of persuasion.

Still, the ombudsman's office has made powerful enemies, and they just happen to be some of the biggest campaign contributors to the state Republican party and Governor Bill Owens: Ralph and Trish Nagel, owners of the Meridian chain of retirement communities.

Governor Owens has appointed both Nagels to important state positions. Ralph Nagel serves as chairman of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which sets budgets and policy for the state's colleges and universities. In 1998, Trish Nagel served on a transition committee that helped the newly elected governor choose a director for the Department of Public Health and Environment -- the very agency that regulates nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Later, she was appointed to the state Science and Technology Commission.

And the Nagels haven't hesitated to play politics. Ralph Nagel has publicly described the ombudsmen as "vigilantes," and the Nagels' company has prevented ombudsmen who show up at Meridian homes from talking to their residents. Since Meridian doesn't accept any Medicare or Medicaid payments, the Nagels insist that the ombudsmen have no legal right to be in their facilities, even though Colorado law doesn't make a distinction between private-pay facilities and those that accept federal funds. According to the statute that established the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, "The State shall ensure that representatives of the Office shall have access to long-term care facilities and residents."

And the Nagels have fought other proposals intended to help protect nursing-home residents, even opposing a state regulation requiring nursing homes to publicly disclose unexplained deaths, medical mistakes and reports of sexual abuse. Such allegations, the Nagels argue, should be investigated by the health department before being revealed to the public.

The Nagels' well-known antipathy toward the ombudsman program has led others in the health-care field to speculate that their influence may have been a factor in the proposal to prevent the ombudsman program's director from speaking out on behalf of the elderly.

"Virginia Fraser has done an excellent job. I don't think you can replace someone like her," says Jeff Jerebker, president of Pinon Management, a local chain that runs eighteen nursing homes. "The government has left her alone for years. Why muzzle her now?"

Trish Nagel, however, insists that Meridian had nothing to do with any proposed changes in the ombudsman program.

"In no way was Meridian involved in the Ombudsman's resignation," she said in a written statement provided to Westword. "We were as surprised as anyone when Ms. Fraser chose to resign her position. Based on Ms. Fraser's published statements, she resigned because she could no longer honor the terms of a longstanding contract her employer had with the state. To blame Meridian or others for her personal decision would be false and irresponsible."

Fraser herself declined to comment on Meridian, noting the ongoing dispute between the ombudsman's office and the Nagels over access to Meridian sites.

Fraser's resignation came as a shock to hundreds of people around the state who had worked with her over the years. But she says she came to feel she had no choice but to resign, leaving behind a program she'd spent a big part of her life building.

"[The state was] saying they were going to speak for the ombudsman and they would make the policy decisions," says Fraser. "It was outrageous. I decided this isn't working for me. Enough already." The 72-year-old Fraser believes she made a statement by stepping down, and she hopes the ensuing uproar will remind state bureaucrats of just how valued ombudsmen are in Colorado.

"I feel pretty good about dropping this bombshell," she says with a smile.


Virginia Fraser suspects she knows precisely what first incurred the Nagels' wrath.

It was the 1993 annual report issued by her office. In a section on personal-care boarding homes -- a broad category that includes assisted-living centers such as Meridian -- Fraser included one paragraph that alluded to the chain but didn't mention it by name.

"In larger assisted-living facilities," the paragraph read, "the majority of complaints have come this year from one ownership group concerning contracts which allow management to determine when and why residents are no longer 'appropriate.' In addition, they limit the ability of a resident to access Medicare benefits by insisting on 'their' provider, who is not Medicare certified. They have refused to allow ombudsmen posters and have attempted to deny access in certain circumstances."

The Meridian chain has five homes in the metro area, with a total of more than 1,500 residents. The company offers three different levels of housing, including independent-living apartments for people who don't need help with day-to-day tasks, assisted living for those who need some help, and small nursing homes in two of the facilities that care for people with more severe problems. The target population is the relatively healthy -- and wealthy -- elderly.

Meridian's homes are among the most expensive in the metro area, with apartments going for as much as $3,000 per month and rooms in nursing homes costing $50,000 to $70,000 annually. The complexes offer a dazzling number of recreational amenities, from Jacuzzis to on-site restaurants. Most Meridian residents say they like living there, and they give the company high marks for helping them enjoy their golden years.

Because the chain doesn't accept Medicare or Medicaid, residents must pay all expenses themselves. Meridian makes it clear that those with serious health problems such as Alzheimer's must go elsewhere.

The idea behind the three levels of care is that as residents age, they can move from one level to another. However, the contract Meridian residents sign says that company management always has the final say in what level of care is appropriate for each individual. This has led to some conflict when managers decide that an individual needs to be moved to assisted living or the nursing facility.

As a state-licensed facility, Meridian is subject to the state law that mandates regular inspection of all nursing homes by the health department. Earlier this year, the department cited the Lakewood Meridian for two violations of state regulations that require nursing-home residents to be given thirty days' notice of their right to appeal evictions. Trish Nagel wrote a blistering 39-page response, claiming the evictions involved residents with such severe conditions that they posed a potential threat to the health and well-being of other people in the facility. She went on to accuse the health department of drawing "a line in the sand that clearly puts the health department, with its dogma on one side and health-care facilities, who promise what they deliver and deliver what they promise in quality patient care, on the other side."

The most recent confrontation between Meridian and the state ombudsman's office took place this spring. Two local ombudsmen, Julie Christiansen and Ginger Perini, went to the Lakewood Meridian on March 20. At the front desk, they asked to be directed to the assisted-living section of the facility. After going to the fourth floor, they joined several residents playing bingo and struck up a conversation. "Within five minutes," Perini wrote in a report, "the general manager, Jan Van Blommesteyn, appeared and...requested that we go downstairs with him. In front of the residents he stated that we 'have no authority in this type of facility and the federal and state statutes do not say that we have access to this facility.' At this point he said we would need to leave the facility. We asked if Jan had been given this directive by Trish Nagel, and he indicated that he had and again asked that we go downstairs."

The manager then escorted the two women to the front door.

This experience was similar to several confrontations at the Boulder Meridian in the summer of 1999, when two ombudsmen were accused of coming to the facility in order to "plant" complaints and were told to leave.

Last August, the state human services department -- which contracts with the ombudsman's office -- notified Meridian that it was preparing to fine the company $2,500 for barring the ombudsmen from entering the Boulder facility. Trish Nagel accused the ombudsman's office of a pattern of "harassment and intimidation" and reportedly placed a call to the governor's office. In October, she met with the governor's attorney, Troy Eid, Attorney General Ken Salazar and Deputy Attorney General Barbara McDonnell, and threatened to sue the state over the proposed fine.

Human Services director Marva Hammons later rescinded the fine, with a warning that Meridian would be fined if it again barred ombudsmen from trying to enter one of the company's facilities.

But that was exactly what happened this past March at the Lakewood Meridian, so in April, the human services department again notified Meridian that it would be fined $2,500. This time, Trish Nagel sent a response insisting that state law did not permit the ombudsmen to enter a facility that doesn't accept government funding; she also suggested that even if the state law did cover such facilities, it would be unconstitutional.

Meridian is appealing the fine, and a hearing on the matter will be set later this month.

Nagel insists there is no good reason for the ombudsmen to be in its facilities.

"The quality of life and the satisfaction of residents is readily apparent to anyone who visits a Meridian community," Nagel said in her written statement to Westword. "Why would the ombudsman spend precious time and resources at communities known for outstanding care when the ombudsman reported over 12,000 resident care complaints at other facilities? The ombudsman's resources should be spent where they are obviously needed -- at facilities where the ombudsman has reported complaints about such serious resident care issues as abuse, neglect, odors, infestations, pressure sores and other signs of poor resident care and mistreatment. In wasting time and resources in this way, the ombudsman has lost sight of the people they are responsible to serve -- the socially and economically disadvantaged senior citizens who reside in government-funded facilities."

Others see this strong defense differently.

"The Nagels are a very powerful and influential couple in Colorado," says Mary Reilly, western regional director of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. "They are so anti-regulation. They don't think anybody should have the ability to come into their operation."

And Trish Nagel, a practicing attorney, hasn't hesitated to use the courts to take on those who criticize their operation. When Westword requested information for this story, Ralph Nagel responded with a letter that pointed out problems in Rocky Mountain News coverage this spring "which necessitated that newspaper printing a retraction and taking other action to ameliorate the damage caused by that coverage. Certainly," he continued, "we want to avoid a repeat occurrence with the Westword article in the interest, not only of Meridians, but also in the interest of not having older adults and their families unfairly frightened by the publication of reckless or unsubstantiated statements and accusations."

Jerry Ritchie, a disabled tenants'-rights activist, was sued in 1995 by Meridian in connection with the "Renter's Hotline" that he operated. At one point, Ritchie had called consumer advocate Tom Martino and talked on his radio show about complaints he'd received from former Meridian residents.

That was enough to spur the Nagels into action. They hired private investigator John Corsentino, who called Ritchie's hotline and pretended to be a son looking for long-term care for his elderly mother; he told Ritchie the family was considering the Lakewood Meridian. (A transcript of the telephone call, which Corsentino secretly taped, wound up in the court file.)

"The last contracts of theirs that I saw on independent living take your rights away," Ritchie told Corsentino, adding that he'd gotten several calls from people who were mad at Meridian, including one man who said his parents had died and the company was demanding three months' rent because no advance notice had been given. "Meridian I wouldn't do business with," Ritchie continued. "From my point of view, as far as I'm concerned, and any records and anything that I've seen, and the track record that I know about Meridian, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

In the lawsuit, Meridian accused Ritchie of slander, interference with contractual relations and civil conspiracy. The company asked the court for an injunction that would prevent Ritchie from "communicating to any third person any false and inaccurate statements" about Meridian. Ritchie was served with the lawsuit papers while hospitalized with pneumonia.

In 1996, a lawyer arrived at Ritchie's small apartment to take a deposition in the case. She introduced herself as an attorney with Moye, Giles, O'Keefe, Vermeire & Gorrell, the firm that represented Meridian. Her name was Trish Nagel ("Nursing a Grudge," January 7, 1999).

As part of the lawsuit, Meridian subpoenaed several staffers in the ombudsman's program and even tried to obtain copies of the confidential complaints against the company that had been filed with that office.

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 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.

Wadhams cites Meridian's current dispute with the state health department as evidence that the Nagels don't have undue influence over Owens. "The proof is that the Nagels don't have a good relationship with Jane Norton," says Wadhams. "That indicates [their contributions] haven't played into this situation."

Wadhams also notes that criticism of the state health department's lax regulation of Colorado nursing homes extends back to the Romer administration.

The Nagels' political influence was vividly demonstrated during the last session of the legislature. Representative Kelley Daniel of Golden introduced a bill that would have limited long-term-care homes to charging thirty days' rent when a resident has to leave through no fault of his own. The proposed law was prompted by the same complaints against Meridian that first came to the attention of the ombudsman's office in 1993, over a clause then in its leases requiring residents of independent-living facilities to pay ninety days' rent after vacating their apartments, even if the vacancy was caused by illness or death. (The Nagels say they haven't needed to enforce that clause for several years, because they have a waiting list for apartments.) The bill attracted little notice in the House and passed easily with bipartisan support.

That may have been because the Nagels' chief lobbyist, Karen Reinertson of Hays, Hays & Wilson, had just been appointed by Owens to head the state agency that approves Medicaid payments to nursing homes. With Reinertson off the floor, apparently no one was tracking the bill on behalf of Meridian. Once the Nagels realized the bill had passed the House, they leapt into action to stop it in the state Senate.

"When the Nagels heard this had passed -- it flew in under the radar -- they dispatched every lobbyist from Hays, Hays & Wilson to the Senate," says Senator Sue Windels of Arvada, who sponsored the bill there. "They unleashed a huge effort to kill it." Trish Nagel personally joined her hired hands to lobby senators against the legislation.

Windels was also sponsoring an important nursing-home reform bill, Senate Bill 78. The lobbyists told her they would kill SB 78 if she tried to include the provisions limiting contracts to thirty days, she says. To save SB 78, Windels made that proposal part of a different bill.

To appease the Nagels, at one point the House even added a provision to SB 78 mandating that all investigations of complaints at private-pay facilities be done by the state health department rather than the ombudsman's office. But that provision was removed after legislators realized how costly it would be for the health department to take on the ombudsmen's role.

"Most of the complaints they handle are quite frivolous -- there's no chicken soup on the menu, and they promised there would be," says Windels. "It would have cost more than a million dollars a year for the health department to handle those complaints."

Windels tried to shepherd Daniel's thirty-day's notice bill through the Senate. Several other states have laws that place even more severe restrictions on the amount extended-care facilities can charge residents who leave, she points out. "We wanted to protect people who decide 'I don't know how much longer I can live independently,'" she says. "They know they're moving into a phase of their lives where they may have to move into a nursing home. What we were trying to do is protect them from things over which they have no control: death, and when the nursing home is going to ask someone to leave."

Windels's bill was defeated on a party-line vote after Democrat Jim Dyer of Durango joined the Republicans to kill it. Dyer had just been appointed by Owens to an $87,000-a-year job on the Public Utilities Commission.

Earlier this month, Meridian announced it was dropping the ninety-day-notice requirement from its leases and would require only thirty days' notice on its independent-living contracts.

Nevertheless, Nagel says she still would oppose Daniel's proposal. "Meridian did not support [the bill] because it would have set a dangerous precedent in undermining the public's ability to rely upon contracts in all types of businesses and would have done nothing to improve the quality of care or life of residents of nursing homes or personal-care boarding homes," she said in her statement to Westword.

Meridian's reputation for opposing government regulation is undeserved, according to Nagel: "Meridian has supported legislation that would increase the quality of care provided to residents of nursing homes and personal care boarding homes. This year, Meridian supported legislation to increase the role of the health department in investigating complaints in nursing homes. In the past, Meridian opposed legislation that would have eliminated unannounced annual inspections by the health department."

All of this skirmishing over one legislative proposal stands in sharp contrast to Colorado's failed effort to regulate nursing homes. For years, Colorado has had one of the worst records in the country for inspecting nursing homes and citing them for poor care ("Dying for Dollars," October 15, 1998). Several class-action lawsuits have exposed shocking conditions at area facilities and highlighted the state's refusal to crack down on the worst of them. And recently, workers at the state health department division that monitors nursing homes have become accustomed to regular office visits from FBI agents.

The most stunning charges involved the privately owned O'Hara Regional Center for Rehabilitation in Denver. That center, which cared for people with severe disabilities, was sued in 1999 by former patients and their families who alleged that O'Hara's poor care had led to the deaths of several people from abuse and neglect. The plaintiffs provided a horrifying list of complaints, including those of helpless people being allowed to fester in their own waste, developing such severe bedsores that they required surgery. The lawsuit included stories of patients going unfed for days, not being bathed for months, and getting blood poisoning from untreated infections. Several staff members gave depositions in which they verified the accounts of horrible care. That lawsuit was eventually settled for $37 million.

The state's failure to close O'Hara or force it to change left many observers incredulous, but it was part of a pattern in which Colorado regulators refused to fully enforce laws meant to protect nursing-home residents from abuse. It was that sorry record that brought the FBI into the offices of the state health department last fall. While no charges have been filed, dozens of employees have been interviewed in a division said to be in disarray. The FBI probe was likely prompted by the O'Hara scandal. Several officials in other states have been arrested and accused of taking bribes from nursing homes they were supposed to be regulating.

For many, the O'Hara situation highlighted how crucial it is for the state to have a forceful advocate for seniors in the ombudsman's office.

"Having a strong and autonomous ombudsman program is really important," says Enid Cox, director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Denver. "There are more families facing the issue of how to provide for elders in need of care. The point of the ombudsman program is that it can get into all facilities and be a voice for the residents. Not having that would be a huge loss to all of us concerned about quality of care."


Another vital part of the equation is keeping the ombudsman program independent from political pressures, say those involved in elder care.

"There's all these players in nursing homes, but the ombudsman's office is the only one that's truly independent," says Pinon Management's Jerebker. "Advocacy needs to be independent; it should not have an agenda. If it's dictated by government or politics, then it really isn't advocacy anymore."

Cox says Virginia Fraser's resignation is a blow to seniors all over the state.

"It's heartbreaking that someone who's had such an excellent long-term career would need to terminate their position because she felt she couldn't do her job," Cox says.

The state is currently negotiating a new ombudsman's program contract with the Legal Center for People With Disabilities and Older People. Since Fraser's resignation, the state reportedly has backed off on some of its previous demands that the ombudsman be restricted from talking to the public.

Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, claims the department's position on the ombudsman's office has been misrepresented. She says her department simply wants to "coordinate" any public comments the ombudsman makes.

"We wanted to have a knowledge of what was being said to the media or what was being presented to the legislature," says McDonough. "If it's an issue of some controversy, we'd prefer they get together with us and we discuss how it would be responded to. This was not about trying to change the role of the ombudsman. It was about closer coordination with the human services department."

To Fraser, "coordination" sounds more like censorship. Anyone who has read the ombudsman's annual report knows Fraser is always careful to balance the complaints of residents with the perspective of nursing-home managers. Rabble-rousing is not what she's about, but she feels strongly that someone has to be there to defend elderly people when they are most vulnerable.

"The nursing homes have a really tough job," says Fraser. "Short staffing is at the root of a lot of the care problems. Many of the corporations [that own nursing homes] are still so bottom-line-oriented, they don't provide the care they should."

While Fraser is no longer running the ombudsman program, she still serves as a volunteer ombudsman at Cherrelyn. She started doing this before she resigned: In the midst of the political attacks on her office, she wanted to remind herself of just how important the ombudsman's work was.

"I felt like I wanted to get back to the basics," says Fraser. "I was feeling like I was getting out of touch with the nursing-home residents by not being there."

Cherrelyn is one of the biggest homes in Colorado, with 200 residents. Its managers pride themselves on cooperating with the ombudsman's office, which they view as a useful intermediary between residents' families and the facility. In a recent meeting, Fraser talked with the staff about doing a "residents' rights" quilt and bringing in a local quilting group to help. The managers told Fraser about a recent field trip to a Rockies game that became eventful when their bus broke down and they had to be rescued by RTD. At the request of residents, plans are also being made to buy a frozen-yogurt machine and new patio furniture.

Making the rounds, Fraser walked through Cherrelyn's dining room. She noted approvingly that the nursing aides were chatting with several disabled people as they helped them eat lunch.

"It's important to see how people are being tended to when they're eating," says Fraser. "Are they just shoving food in people's mouths, or are they talking to them as they feed them?"

Fraser likes Cherrelyn's current administrator and clearly feels the staff is doing a good job. She's been around long enough to remember years when things weren't going so well at Cherrelyn. "At one time we had a lot of problems here," she says.

Eventually, Fraser plans to try and talk with every person who lives at the home.

"I'm going to try to go there once a week," she says. "I hope to visit with every new resident as they come in. It's a way of getting back in touch with what the local ombudsmen are doing."

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