> Sister Barbara Jean Donovan Continues to Serve the Aging

Sister Barbara Jean Donovan Continues to Serve the Aging


After five years of leading the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, including through the COVID-19 pandemic, as General Minister, Sister Barbara Jean Donovan considered what window she would open next.

“I’ve always lived a life of service,” she said. “My whole life has been with services to the poor and the aging.” Her former ministries included managing an adult day care center in Syracuse, New York and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, nursing home. “I had worked with the Department of the Aging, so I just went to some of the services for the aging in Syracuse on the department’s website, and that’s where I found the ombudsman program.”

Part of a little-known national volunteer program, the New York State Long Term Care Ombudsman is an advocate and resource for older adults and people with disabilities who live in nursing homes, assisted living and other licensed adult care homes. A New York State-certified ombudsman helps residents and families understand patient rights for quality of care and life and receives, investigates and works with facility staff to resolve resident complaints.

“It takes some effort to become an ombudsman,” Sister Barbara Jean says. After interviewing with the program director, she began the two-month application process and then completed 40 hours of training. “And at the end of the training, I had to be shadowed and supervised.” When she received her certification, the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program assigned her to a Syracuse area nursing home, where she brings resident and family concerns to hospital staff and administration, working toward mutually beneficial solutions.

Complaints can be anything from the food (“everyone in the world complains about institutional food”) to unanswered call buttons or family members requesting additional information about a patient’s fall.

“Someone wanted more physical therapy. Another wanted a wheelchair to get around the building,” Sister Barbara Jean said. “We investigate and then try to resolve the issue with the staff. We can’t tell staff what to do. We can only say, ‘This resident wants me to investigate this. Can we work to resolve this?’ For residents who don’t have family support, it’s a godsend.”

Sister Barbara Jean carries into this ministry the experience from spending 40 years in nursing home and elder care, including as a nursing home administrator. But she still “learned a lot of what people face in nursing homes.” Continuing her commitment to serving the poor and elderly remains personally fulfilling.

“It’s like redesigning your life,” she said. “The window that opened was a perfect one.”

Article found in the 2024 Spring Franciscan Spirit Edition