By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Verna Day-Jones is a 75-year-old newlywed, great-grandmother, amateur actress and community activist, and she is concerned about her future.
The Baltimore woman expects she and her new husband, whom she married after being widowed for 25 years, will care for each other as they get older. Her four children “have their own challenges in life, so I know I don’t want to depend on their financial support if I were to require long-term care,” she said.
She keeps on top of aging issues as a member of Baltimore’s Commission on Aging and Retirement.
But a new survey says that, unlike Day-Jones, most elderly Americans do not have the information they need to prepare for the practical and financial issues associated with long-term care.
The report, released Monday by the U.S. Administration on Aging, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the National Association of State Units on Aging, was based on responses by 10 focus groups around the country targeting older and baby boomer women from five racial and ethnic groups.
It found that there is a “pressing need for information … that will permit seniors, baby boomers and caregivers of all ages to engage in rational planning and informed decision making.”
Many people in Maryland are “sort of in aging denial, yet it is a very important area,” said Pamela Causey, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Aging. She said around 800,000 Maryland citizens are 60 and older, and that number is expected to jump dramatically in the next couple of decades.
But Causey said issues surrounding aging and caregiving are receiving more attention in Maryland as residents live longer and healthier lives. Local agencies are focusing on outreach to senior citizens and their adult children, which Causey called an exciting trend in the counties.
Some people are “afraid to face up to the fact that, ‘Yes, I may need long-term care,'” said Carolyn Mohler, client services manger for the Calvert County Office on Aging. “Often, when decisions have to be made, it is at a time of crisis.”
Deciding on the best living arrangements is an important issue for many seniors.
While members of the study said they would prefer to stay at home as long as possible, most were not aware of services that would help them, such as meals-on-wheels and adult day care. Participants also said they would rather live in a retirement community or assisted living facility rather than a nursing home.
Those who could afford alternatives did not want to be a burden to their children, but many participants worried that they had insufficient financial resources.
Many people are under the misconception that Medicare will cover all of their needs, said Mohler.
While Medicare does cover skilled care, such as physical therapy or speech therapy, it does not provide all-day supervision, personal care or help with meals for people who have a long-term, chronic condition, Mohler said. State and county agencies on aging are trying to make seniors aware of alternative sources of help.
Mohler said her office also helps people with a wide range of other issues including wills, guardianship issues, powers of attorney, living wills and long- term care insurance.
The Baltimore County Department of Aging has published two books on planning for the future, and Deputy Director Arnold Eppel said he believes many seniors are aware of the questions they face.
But he is not convinced that baby boomers understand the challenges of long-term care, even though they are making decisions for their parents and could be buying extra insurance for themselves.
The focus groups found that people often face financial burdens as well as stress, frustration, and physical and mental strain when they become caregivers for senior family members.
Causey said caregivers’ needs are a “huge issue” and are receiving more and more attention in Maryland. Mohler pointed out that finding ways to address caregiving is especially important now that more adult family members are working outside the home.
Day-Jones remembers how difficult it was to take care of her own mother.
“Just as my own mother required in-home services and eventually residential care, so will many of us as time goes on,” she said.
She is an advocate for projects that help seniors. She has a federal retirement package, life insurance, private insurance and Medicare, but she said even she could do more to ensure her future.
Participating in the focus group with nine other older African-American women from the Baltimore area “really opened up my eyes,” she said.