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BROOKVILLE â Pennsylvania's Empowered Expert Residents (PEERs) are honored annually at a statewide event in Harrisburg for their efforts in advocating for their own quality of life in long-term living facilities.
However, because of the travel distance, PEERs from the northwest region of the state convened at the Heritage House Thursday.
"Since it's very difficult for some PEERs to go to Harrisburg, we decided to honor the PEERs in a location where more of them could come," Joyce Wills, Ombudsman at the Jefferson County Area Agency on Aging, said. "It's a time for PEERs to get to know other PEERs from different counties."
PEERs are residents who live in nursing homes and personal care homes and are trained to be Ombudsmen in facilities where they live.
According to Wills, PEERs are trained "to be advocates for residents' rights, quality of care and quality of life."
"We want them to know that they can be a valuable part of the community," Wills said. "Just because they've gone to a facility doesn't mean that they don't have value."
PEERs work to raise money to better the facilities in which they reside.
In Jefferson County, PEERs have raised funds for different projects at Jefferson Manor, Mulberry Square and Laurelbrooke Landing.
PEERs at Jefferson Manor raised money for a new sound system for the chapel; Mulberry Square raised money for new benches; and Laurelbrooke Landing raised money for a walking trail and fountain.
More than 50 PEERs gathered at Heritage House for Northwest PEER Day.
But more may be joining next year: According to Wills, three more PEERs will graduate in five to 10 weeks. PEER began in 2002, and there are now approximately 1,100 graduates located in more than 150 nursing and veterans' homes and other long-term living facilities covering 50 counties statewide. But since its inception, the PEER program has graduated about 1,500 people, and there are 271 active PEERs in the northwest region.
The 10-hour training curriculum was developed by the State Ombudsman Office, local Ombudsmen and PEER graduates.
While the PEER program is resident-directed, training also includes working with staff at all levels of the facilities. Pennsylvania is the first state in the nation to sustain a comprehensive self-advocacy program such as PEER.
Wills came up with the theme for Thursday's Northwest PEER day, which was "Be the sunshine in your home."
"Because that's what the PEERs really are," Tawnia Norris, volunteer Ombudsman said. "They're there to listen to the other people. They're doing a lot of things in the community."
The statewide PEER day will take place in October, which is Residents' Rights Month.
"People believe that when they go into a nursing home they cease to exist â they don't," said Randy Davis, director for Jefferson County Area Agency on Aging. "They're still vital, they're still intelligent, they still have a ton of skills, and the PEER program helps bring that out. It gives them a purpose again."