AARP published my article about volunteering as an Ombudsman.

Making a difference and meeting fascinating people motivates volunteer

Usually when we look for a volunteer opportunity, we are motivated to help others in need. When I volunteered to be a long-term care ombudsman, it turned into a life changing experience. I have changed the lives of dozens of people, all for the better, improved my ability and confidence to stand up for others and, because of my expanded knowledge and experience, made life better for family and friends when they needed long-term care. The long-term care ombudsman program has been a jackpot bingo for me.


My work experience was as a human resource manager in high tech companies. My only visit to a nursing home had been years ago to visit my grandmother. Her nursing home smelled like urine, which is rare now, and there was a woman in one of the rooms calling, “Help me,” but no one did.  Picturing myself making a difference in such a foreign environment was a giant leap of faith. My first assignment was to an assisted living I visited for a few hours most weeks. One man told me stories about working on the Panama Canal:  mosquitoes, workers from around the world and unrelenting heat. Another resident told me his son wouldn’t give him any of his own money for spending. The son said he didn’t want his father to drink. My supervisor and I met with Adult Protective Services to clarify that it was the resident’s right to have his money and do as he pleased with it. And then there was the woman who founded training for new Peace Corps volunteers. I was hooked. These people were fascinating.


My first nursing home case was a daughter whose mother was a resident of a nursing home. Her mother’s care was paid for by Medicaid and when she died, the facility said the mother had had no money in her Medicaid spending account. The daughter knew that was not true. Her mom was frugal and knew there would be final expenses. Together, the daughter and staff pooled their knowledge of what the mother spent in her last year and determined a fair amount to give to the daughter. Initially I was fearful that I could not handle this case because I didn’t know much about Medicaid funding, only that recipients in nursing homes had spending accounts. I learned that by asking questions and listening I was able to learn quite a bit


Recently I visited with a woman in an adult care home. She told me she was bed bound and left her bed only when the paramedics transferred her to a stretcher to take her to the hospital.  As we spoke I watched bugs crawl across her body. A look around her room revealed more bugs under the bed and in the corners of the room. When I discussed this with the facility operator, my outrage was barely discernible behind my polite words. When I returned a few days later, the room was empty and clean. The resident had died. I’d hoped she’d had a few bug-free days.  There is a lot of work to be done in our long-term care facilities.


Oregon’s Long-term Care Ombudsmen will be offering certification training on June 6, 7, 13, 14 and 28, in the Portland Metro. Approved applicants must attend all five days to become certified.  Certified ombudsmen are assigned to visit facilities (nursing home, assisted living, residential or memory care) near their homes. Ombudsmen give about 16 hours per month, attend a meeting with their Deputy Ombudsman for ongoing training and support, and sets their own schedule.

Learn more at or contact Lene Garrett at 503-378-6303, [email protected] .

Ms. Johnson is a certified volunteer ombudsman.

Help for the Elderly

The Oregonian, our local newspaper, has recently drawn attention to the problems the residents of long-term care facilities face. This is my letter to the editor:

Thank you for drawing attention to problems in long-term care (assisted living, nursing homes, etc.). As a volunteer ombudsman for 15 years in Arizona, Florida and Oregon, I have seen the problems. My worst case was a man whose daughter abandoned him after she stole his life savings. We found one check she never cashed, so he took that money and  moved back to his home state under the care of trusted friends. One resident was not allowed to join his friends at the table for lunch because it was too much work to lift him into his wheel chair; now he sits and laughs with them every day.  I saw bugs walk across a resident while she lay in bed. Thankfully, there is a special set of laws called Resident Rights to protect residents of long-term care.

Ombudsmen visit residents and ask if they need assistance. Sometimes the resident has dementia but we take the time to understand. Residents may be afraid to speak up for fear of losing the goodwill of those who care for them; we assure them they are protected. The more volunteer ombudsmen in our long-term care facilities, the safer and happier the residents will be. I encourage everyone to consider volunteering.

Railroad Salvage

My family found the secret to living well on a modest income in the 1950s and 60s. Every Wednesday morning my father went into Portland to the railroad salvage auction. He examined all the goods displayed on long tables, decided on what he wanted, turned his bids into the office. If he submitted the winning bid, the railroad office would call him that afternoon and he would go back the next morning to pick up his goods.

 I went with him, sometimes for the auction and sometimes for the pickup. I was fascinated by the dolls with missing arms and legs, shoes in smashed boxes, sweater sets without packaging, refrigerators with dents, and sets of dishes with a few broken pieces. I liked pickup the best because everyone was so happy. Grown men would run around bragging about what they bought for $5 or $10. My dad did that sometimes, too.

 He purchased our living room couch missing one leg. One of our lamps was a young boy whose foot had been lopped off, until a ceramicist came by to fit the boy for a new foot and a week later made him whole again. Our stove had a dent in the top so Dad had cupboards built above it, giving us one of the few built-in stoves in the neighborhood. The dresser mirror in my bedroom had a damaged frame so I covered it with memorabilia and later corsages from my proms.

 Most of all, we ate a lot of our meals out of dented cans or cans without labels or dented cans without labels. Mom taught us from an early age that if the dented can was swollen, then do not eat it but rather save it and show it to her. If the contents shot out the top, like a volcano, when we opened it, we were to throw it away. If I opened a can looking for ripe olives but found tamales wrapped in paper and covered with red sauce, I stored the open can in the refrigerator until my mom came home from her job at the hospital. We ate a hot German potato salad, pickled beets, sauerkraut, potatoes, small wieners and ravioli. I still love just about anything in a can except peas.

 Sometimes Dad would buy items to resell at his feed store. They usually had nothing to do with livestock or gardens but he got a reputation as someone who offered good deals on unusual items. When he retired he had an entire room of his store filled with dented cans and other food items. They were so old they didn’t have use by dates and he hadn’t been to the railroad salvage for years at that time of his life so who knows how old the food was. The inventory of that room went directly into the garbage can.

 When my Mom was at the end of her life I reminded her about the time she heated a bag of cookies for us and an army of worms fled from the hot marshmallow; she didn’t remember but didn’t doubt the story. We reminisced about the dented cans and damaged appliances and off brand clothing and armless dolls.

 She said, “I didn’t mind because it saved the family money to buy from the railroad salvage.” She paused, as if remembering that entire room we had to throw away. “Even if he did get a little carried away.”

 “Mom, do you remember when Dad bought the frogs?” I asked.


 “Fifty boxes of dead frogs intended for dissection in Biology class when kids only dissected live frogs.”

 She laughed so hard she almost lost her breath. “Your dad really had a screw loose,” she said.

 We both chuckled at the memory of those frogs rotting away amongst the items for sale in the feed store.

 “What happened to them?” I asked.

 She shrugged. “Maybe they’re still there.”






When a Clown Uses an Animal Prop

The strolling clown has a whole class of animal helpers available to her. She can pull out a hand puppet, spring puppet or finger puppet. He can display a rubber chicken or plush animal. Even invisible animals can show up in clown acts. Here are some ideas for making your animal of choice come alive.

 It all has to do with giving your animal its own persona or character.

 Make your animal look interesting. Not just cute but try for odd or even outrageous. Can the animal be decorated or props added? Add a shiny top hat or an awkward purple bow or, maybe, a pitchfork, depending on who your animal is going to be. A snake with a motorcycle helmet and Harley neck scarf is much more interesting than an unadorned one. A squirrel with a miniature monkey riding on his back is odd.

 Pick a name that fits with your animal’s oddness. It should evoke fun and make people laugh. Every time I meet a pig named Pork Chop I always groan; it’s so mean and true at the same time. My snake with the motorcycle helmet could be called Boss, Rattles or maybe Worm. My favorite name for a male dog is Dude, and because of that name, I can picture him wearing sunglasses.

 So where did Worm or Dude or Pork Chop come from? Provide a compelling origin story for your animal. Maybe you found your skunk as a little pink baby hiding under a rock and you raised him in your sock drawer; his name is Sox. Maybe Worm showed up in your bath tub one day alone and afraid. People like to hear about animals, even pretend ones, rescued from certain death and raised in a nice home.

 So what is your animal like? What does he do for fun? What does he eat? Share snippets of bad, interesting or hilarious behavior or characteristics for your animal. Warn people that your pig likes to bite toes so watch out. Worm, the scary snake, likes to hide in purses so hold yours closed. No-No the mouse is so shy. Dude loves to eat broccoli.

 Allow the animal to show affection. He should look directly into the eyes of the people he is entertaining and also look at you that way. For some reason, when an animal shows affection to a person it is interpreted as true honest affection, unfettered from the constraints of being human. People really believe it means something when an animal singles them out. Maybe No-No comes out only if he sees someone he likes. Maybe Sox the skunk likes to kiss pretty ladies on the cheek. Worm the snake might look scary but when he meets someone he admires, he can’t stop staring.

 Finally, have your animal do something unexpected before you move on.  If Sox the skunk is a spring puppet, you can propel him up into the air. Maybe you put Worm the snake back into his box and he slithers back out through a hole. No-No the mouse may squeak excitedly and you explain that means he needs to find a rest room.

 So clowns, as you stroll, share your animal friends with your audiences and make sure the animals have personas as compelling as you do. Interesting clowns always have even more interesting friends.

My Dog Needs a Story

My black medium-sized labradoodle now wears a tag that says, “I AM A THERAPY DOG.” It took him four years, five courses of study and three states to earn his certification. When he is acting as a therapy dog, he licks, looks you in the eye like you are the most important creature in his life and likes to be petted. But all of his charms can get boring, especially because he visits such a wide variety of people: nursing home residents, healthy children, other clowns (he has a costume) and kids with cancer. That’s a lot of entertaining to do with just a pink tongue and full body of curly black hair.

People who meet Morgan when he is acting as a therapy dog want to believe that he is special, that he is worth all the fuss and attention he gets so I share his specialness when I find an opening. “His name is Mr. Morgan,” I say. “I got tired of people asking me if he was a girl or a boy.” Sometimes they chuckle. “He’s the bravest dog at the dog park. If a couple of dogs are fighting, he will dive onto the pile so he doesn’t miss any action.” Everyone worries that he will get hurt but I tell them he knows when to leave a fight but not until he’s had the last bark. When I tell them he won’t swim they wonder why such a brave dog is afraid of water. I don’t know. My husband is going to swim with him in the Columbia River to see if that helps.

He was truly the world’s worst puppy. No exaggeration needed. He ate five pairs of prescription glasses, three electrical cords, and four pairs of shoes. He even ate a pair I bought to replace one pair he chewed up. He liked to lay in the closet on his back and nip at the bottom of my clothes. My repair bill was almost $200. When guests came over we locked him in a closet. If they insisted we bring him out, they would stare with horror at the wild animal twirling and swirling at the end of the leash. When he grew up he turned into a calm alpha dog who still loves to play. When company comes he runs around the house with someone’s (usually mine) underwear in his mouth. When we are alone he begs me to chase him around the house. When no one is home he examines each piece of garbage in any unsecured receptacle.

There are more Morgan stories. I usually throw out a short story when I can, especially if it fits the conversation. If a child asks if he likes treats I might tell them he loves broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. If a little boy says he wants a dog for Christmas I might tell him that Morgan would like a little boy for Christmas (he would). Most importantly, I always point out that the dog likes whomever is petting him. “He licked your arm. I think he likes you.”

The exception to this dog story telling is when I visit the nursing home. Some of the residents are curious about this little fluffy black dog who is suddenly beside their bed but most want to tell me about the dog they lost or the dog they miss. Morgan is just a stand-in for that dog and I listen to the stories they tell me. Then it is my turn to be entertained.

Stumbling Aboard-expanded edition

My non-fiction adult book Stumbling Aboard: A Reluctant First Mate Travels through 20 Countries has been expanded to include twice as many stories of adventure, danger, boredom, and drudgery aboard the schooner Prologue. When I went to revise the book (mainly taking out commas one reader didn’t like) I looked back at the material that didn’t make it into the book and couldn’t believe I’d left it out. The new stories include times of extreme fear, more mechanical failures, and  interesting characters we met along the way. We will be adding  photos and make the book available as an e-book and in paperback on Amazon.

My husband did a search for Prologue. We had sold our schooner-rigged 44’ Nauticat in Connecticut to a Canadian and lost touch. He just found the boat anchored in France. Her name is Prologue II and she looks beautiful. Go to to see all the details.




Comments on a Death

My mom has passed away. It has taken months to process my feelings about the year I spent at her bedside and the reality of her departure. I want to mention a few insights.

My 94 year old mother spent a year in bed after she broke her hip. She was cared for by experienced caregivers who knew what to do as her body failed. I had hoped that it would be a meaningful experience for her. Perhaps a time when she could think back over her life and come to terms with some of what did not go well for her or others. After all, I’d heard of deathbed conversions. Sadly her dementia grew worse as her body failed, and there were periods of time during which she couldn’t communicate with me. Perhaps some of those insights came then but I think not. Occasionally, she lashed out at me and the caregivers.

I think she mostly felt just pain. A few weeks before the end, the hospice nurse and I figured out my mom wasn’t telling her caregiver about her pain, which meant she wasn’t getting the extra medication she needed. That part of this experience makes me feel the worst. I had promised her that she wouldn’t be in pain while on hospice. I lied.

Not only did I lie to her but I feel guilty because I never felt unconditional love. I did feel compassion and the desire to help her but the problems we’d had over most of my life kept that unconditional love at bay. However, I knew she did the best she could.

During one of her lucid moments I told her that her brother and her mother were waiting for her on the other side, hoping that this incentive would motivate her to go to a better place. She said, “They’ll have to wait a long time.” She believed, up until the end, that when she was gone, that would be the end. I didn’t give up. I told her to come visit me after she passed and she made a face. So far, I have no sign that she has been here. No pennies found. No grand coincidences. No glimpse of her standing over my bed as I fall to sleep. Her memory does stay with me when I do the things she loved like looking at jewelry, shopping for clothes or planning for a trip. I miss her.

Private Performance

My mother is near the end of her life. She has been in hospice for 8 months and I have watched her slipping away. She doesn’t understand much of what I say anymore and I have trouble deciphering her breathless whispers. In fact, she usually doesn’t even open her eyes when I visit.

One recent visit was different. I finished dressing for the St. John’s Parade early and, as Groovy the Clown, visited her at the adult care home where she lives near my home. When I walked into her room, her eyes flew open and followed me around the room.  I waved my purple-gloved hand at her and smiled broadly, “Hi, Mom,” I said, in my loudest voice. “Groovy is here to entertain you.”

Her eye lids flickered and she smiled.

I twirled for her so she could see the entire costume and then danced with my arms. Then I pulled out Stinky, my skunk puppet, and he snuggled into her cheek. “I think Stinky likes you,” I said. ‘Better watch out he doesn’t…” I lifted Stinky’s tail just enough to suggest s spray, a private family joke. I threw Stinky in the air as if he had jumped before returning him to my bag. Next, I produced a giant feather and she seemed to like me drawing it across her cheek.

I had never felt so motivated to make someone laugh. She watched me for ten minutes or more. Then she spoke; I moved closer to hear what she was saying, “You’re funnier than you think you are,” she said and then closed her eyes. I gave her a light kiss on the forehead before I left. On my way out, I greeted the other residents half-heartedly as I pondered my mother’s words. Whatever I did, she liked it.

How Dogs Will Save the World


There’s a lot wrong with our world right now but there may be hope. When I hear about kids spending too much time with their electronic devices and not enough with other kids, I don’t get discouraged. When I attend a party and try to approach a stranger, and that stranger turns away from me, I don’t mind. The reason for my optimism? Dogs!

In the U.S. dogs live in half of all homes. I have a black Labradoodle named Morgan who is my best buddy; we play together at the dog park and snuggle together at night. In all of my middle grade novels the main character has a dog who is their best pal. Why? Dogs are going to save the world.

At the dog park, as soon as Morgan and I are through the fence, he rushes to befriend the first dog he sees. That dog’s handler and I both study how they play and soon are chatting with each other. “It looks like they are well matched,  I say. “How much does your dog weigh?” he asks. “Fifty seven pounds.” “Mine weighs fifty.” “They ARE a good match.” If the dogs run into problems, we work together to find a solution. Sometimes, we find we have more in common than just our dogs and our conversation goes in other directions. This instant connection happens outside the dog park as well. Morgan and I went to a thrift shop together. It benefits the local Humane Society so dogs are welcomed. A woman came running over to pet Morgan, and she and I talked about therapy dogs. After twenty minutes I realized I had made a new friend. The connective power of dogs sometimes astounds me, and the more we take them with us outside our homes, the more our lives will be enriched by the new connections we make.

My reason for including dog pals in my books is sneaky. I want you to like the main characters; and you will if you see them being kind to their pets. I added a dog to the story in Island when I learned the Kuna Indians keep dogs as pets. Including a dog in the stories also ups the opportunity for adventure. What happens when you bring your dog to school dressed as Toto from the Wizard of Oz? How will a dog react when he hears a hurricane outside? What would it be like to be in a parade of forty dogs, all wearing bright colored leashes? The possibilities go on and on and a dog always mixes things  up.

So dogs increase the amount of fun and adventure in our lives, AND dogs will save the world by increasing the connections between people. Hooray for our furry friends who make our world a better place.



What the Sailboat Taught Me #2

On an extended sailboat trip you have to travel light, but what you do have must be there when you need it. If you are anchored in a quiet bay, there is no problem: You have all the time in the world to find it. However, if you are in an emergency in the middle of a storm, puking from sea sickness, and crawling across a heaving floor, then finding a misplaced item becomes a crisis.

As first mate on a long voyage, I spent a lot of time moving items from locker to locker, depending on how soon we might need them and where we would need them. The spare compass had to be close to main steering station in case our auto pilot and compass both failed (and they did). Tools were stored in waterproof labeled containers and placed near the engine in case salt water leaked into the engine (which it did, twice) and had to be expelled immediately. Even the spare toilet paper was within reach of the toilet.

Also, I had to remember where everything was stored because my captain did not remember. Friends on a 33-foot sailboat, who lived aboard in the Caribbean for 10 years, solved this by keeping a master list of items and locations. One evening, we were aboard their boat, preparing to share dinner with them, when the first mate searched for a bottle of wine and discovered that the captain had not been updating the master list. She was furious. Furious. She never found that wine.

Another tip is to check every locker periodically. It might be time to move items to a better location or just to remember what is in the locker.  Most of our canned goods were stored under the floor in the galley (kitchen). When we were trapped in a harbor by a storm in Nicaragua, I decided to check out all my galley storage. When the lid came off one of the lockers, a horrible smell filled the galley. I near gagged from the odor and ran for a gas mask (I don’t know why I had one). The captain put a wet rag over his nose and mouth. We found the locker filled with black, bubbling goo. Salt water and diesel fuel had leaked into the locker, and as a result the cans deteriorated and disintegrated. The contents spilled out and mixed with each other to become the worst stew ever.

So to avoid black goo stew and be ready for anything at any time, make sure your lockers are sorted, arranged, memorized, and inspected on a regular basis. Now that we live in a house, I’ve been organizing and rearranging closets rather than just stuffing more into them and the result is that we rarely have to shop for anything other than fresh food.