By: William March
Printed May 29, 2015
England, says Joan Rixom, “is a small island.”
When she was growing up in Newcastle, a mining and shipbuilding town in the northeast of England, the island seemed to offer limited opportunity for young people.
Elderly people and neglected kids in Tampa can be grateful she felt that way.
It’s the reason Rixom ended up in Tampa, where she has become one of the foremost workers in two crucial programs that depend solely on volunteers to help some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Rixom has put her career skills as a nurse and nurse educator to work as a “long-term care ombudsman,” one of a corps of volunteers who check to make sure nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are taking proper care of their residents.
Without them, many nursing home residents who lack attentive family members would have no independent person checking on their welfare.
She’s also a volunteer in the state guardian ad litem program, which provides court advocates for children who are under state supervision because of family abuse or neglect.
The guardians are needed because in a typical case involving child abuse, neglect, foster care or state custody, the state agency and the parents may have lawyers, but there’s no one in the legal system whose sole job is to speak for the welfare of the child.
Last month, the state Department of Elder Affairs announced that after eight years in the long-term care program, Rixom had been named Ombudsman of the Year.
“All should admire her stamina and commitment to others,” said Lynn Penley, manager of the program for West Central Florida.
Rixom, 77, and her husband Roger live part time in Apollo Beach and part time in one of several houses they’ve renovated in Ybor City. Both are retired after long careers.
Today, she devotes around 20 hours a week to her demanding volunteer tasks, which involve a lot of driving, walking and working with bureaucrats, at an age when most people think mostly about taking it easy.
She doesn’t seem eager to talk about her motivations or feelings about the work.
When she retired, she said, she realized that if she weren’t volunteering, “I’d have to do housework.”
“I’m not good at it, and I don’t like doing things I’m not good at.”
But in a conversation in their tiny 5th Avenue house, both speaking in accents from their native England, Roger is a bit more forthcoming.
“She’s always been a carekeeper of some kind, from when she was growing up with a younger sibling to raising children to being a nurse,” he said.
“I feel immense pride in what she’s done, but I’m not surprised.”
Rixom was born just before the outbreak of World War II, to a father who was a blue-collar worker in Newcastle’s mining and shipbuilding industries and a mother who worked occasionally as a maid.
Like many English children, she didn’t see much of her father until the war was over – he was in the army, mostly in Europe. She started helping take care of her younger brother at an early age.
She knew from early in life that she would be a nurse.
“I don’t remember ever giving a thought to why or how,” she said. “I just knew it was what I wanted. I was one of the lucky ones who knew what I wanted to do.”
She got married young, at least by today’s standards, and not long after she started her nursing career in England, she and her husband moved to Toronto, where he found better job opportunities.
They ended up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she trained for a specialty as an intensive care nurse, and then moved into nursing education. Eventually she became director of a three-year “diploma program” for training nurses, now phased out and replaced by bachelor’s degree programs.
She and her husband then moved to Atlanta, where she headed a hospital’s continuing-education department for nurses.
That’s also where her first marriage ended, and she met Roger, another émigré Brit and a member of a circle of friends with connections to the old country.
He had had an even more cosmopolitan career, working for the chemical company Unilever in Liverpool, South Africa and Germany.
He’s the same age as the world’s most famous Liverpudlian, as they’re called, Paul McCartney.
“No, I never met him,” he says without being asked when a reporter mentions the Beatles, and managed to miss to grow up without ever even hearing the Beatles play in their hometown – it’s a big town.
Joan and Roger have now been married for 28 years, have five children from their previous marriages and a dozen grandkids – “a wonderful blended family” who all enjoy each other’s company, she said.
Her ombudsman work involves visiting facilities where her clients live to check on complaints by residents or their families. Her caseload includes 15 local facilities.
As a guardian ad litem, she handles the cases of six children.
As a veteran and unusually skilled volunteer, she’s also a field trainer for other new volunteers.
“We find out if the residents are satisfied with the care they’re getting, that they’re being treated well, they’re in a secure area, they’re happy with the meals they get,” she said.
The complaints often involve cleanliness, lack of privacy, food or finances. Ombudsmen also check on such issues as discharges and evictions and medication administration.
In some cases, an ombudsman must get permission from the state to initiate an investigation, which can involve questioning staff and checking records. It’s not like a law enforcement investigation – ombudsmen don’t have subpoena power and depend on cooperation from the administration of the home.
“We try to work cooperatively with the administration,” she said. “For the most part they work cooperatively because they also want their residents to be happy.”
In rare cases – it’s happened to Rixom only once in eight years – when the ombudsman doesn’t get the necessary cooperation or results, they can refer the matter to the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates and licenses long-term care facilities with the force of law.
The ombudsman program is run by the state Department of Elder Affairs, which recognized Rixom as ombudsman of the year.
According to its figures, there are 321 volunteers statewide in the program, who completed 6,077 facility assessments, traveling more than 360,000 miles to do so, and worked an estimated 91,790 unpaid hours.
If that sounds like a lot, there are 679 nursing homes in Florida with 83,129 beds and about 73,000 residents, plus 3,042 licensed assisted living facilities with 85,000 beds, according to the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group.
Nearly 60 percent of those residents don’t receive visits from family members and friends, according to the Department of Elder Affairs web site.
“It’s shocking,” Rixom said. “It’s like they were dumped.”
The need for more volunteers, she said, is always pressing – “People burn out, or move away.”
She got into the work, she said, because, “We saw an advert.”
“I tried it and liked it. I could use my background. It’s very rewarding.
The need for volunteers is so great, and the rewards so satisfying, that retiree volunteers like Rixom tend to want to remain in the job for a long time.
Occasionally, a volunteer will try to work too long, she said, and the director of the program will have to “ease them out.”
How long does she want to remain?
“That’s a good question,” she responded. “The best answer is, as long as I’m capable of doing a good job. I want somebody to tell me if I’m not.”
Rixom discusses her work professionally, giving concise, direct answers to questions. Even at 77, she’s clearly a long way from being eased out.
“That’s why I usually don’t discuss my age.”