Arizona White House Conference on Aging

FEBRUARY 27, 1995 VOLUME 2, NUMBER 34

The Arizona White House Conference on Aging held in Phoenix last month dealt with issues facing the full White House Conference on Aging when it meets in May. Arizona’s delegation dealt with several issues expected to dominate the national aging agenda.

Long Term Care

Everyone knows that the proportion of elderly citizens is expected to grow dramatically in the next two decades. What many do not appreciate is that the greatest growth is projected for the “old old”; those over age 85. Currently one-quarter of all women (but only one-seventh of men) over age 85 live in nursing homes. Those who turn 65 in any given year have about a 40% chance of spending some portion of the rest of their lives in a nursing home. About 10% of those will spend five or more years there.

Another tremendous segment of the population requires long-term care, but receives care at home. About 70% of all long-term care of the elderly is provided solely by family and friends, without institutionalization.

For those who can be cared for at home, the cost of assistance may be prohibitive. Simply bringing an aide into the home three times a week for meal preparation and light housekeeping can easily cost in the range of about $600 per month. Since about 20% of Arizona’s elderly live at or near the federal poverty level, even such small assistance may be unaffordable.

For those placed in nursing homes in Arizona, the cost of care will typically vary from $30,000 to $40,000 per year. Many seniors expect Medicare to pay some portion of that cost; in fact, Medicare pays only about 3% of the total nursing home bill in this country. Private long-term care insurance (still a relative rarity) and Veteran’s benefits account for another percent or two each; the remaining portion of long-term care costs are paid roughly equally by Medicaid and patient’s private savings and income.

Although nursing homes care for less than one-fifth of those requiring long-term care, they are responsible for more than half of the cost of care. Seniors are reluctant to enter the nursing home, and much prefer to be cared for (and die) in their homes.

Cost effective alternatives to institutionalization exist, especially in urban areas. Adult day care, respite care, hospice and assisted housing programs can keep many nursing home candidates in less expensive settings and more comfortable. Unfortunately, such programs are too rare and are seldom funded by public dollars. Paradoxically, it becomes less expensive for most patients to move into the nursing home and qualify for Medicaid (ALTCS in Arizona) than to secure care at home or in a more home-like setting.

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