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Elder care facing crisis as folks struggle to get needs met

Randy Harlow cares for his mother (WSET){p}{/p}
Randy Harlow cares for his mother (WSET)

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NELSON COUNTY, Va (WSET) If you are taking care of an elderly loved one, know just how much it takes to meet their needs. With 10-thousand people turning 65 every day, those in the eldercare field say we're facing a real crisis--so many health care needs, with limited services and money to handle it.

Randy Harlow already knows the struggle. Harlow has always been very close to his 90-year-old mom Dorothy. He loves her so much that when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he retired from his job as a minister to take care of her.

Now at 68, and with his own health issues, he drives from Lynchburg to her home in Nelson County to be her caregiver four days a week, and a V-A benefit pays for an aide to sit with her and do light chores the other three days. He spends the night there every night. "Mom is totally dependent at this point for everything, her clothing her bathing her eating," says Harlow.

His mom also can't ride in a car, so they were taking an ambulance to Lynchburg General Hospital every time she had an ailment, covered by Medicare. Eventually, Centra got her into a hospice program to cut back on those costly trips.

Hospice provided weekly nurse visits plus a nurse on call, and certified nursing assistants twice a week just to bathe her. Medicare limits hospice coverage to six months, but with several appeals along the way Randy was able to stretch it out to two years before they cut her off. "I felt like I was being punished because I had taken such good care of my mother," he said, choking back tears.

Without being able to pay out of pocket for the care she needed, Randy didn't know where to turn. "So I'm panicking I'm saying 'what am I going to do now?'"

Eventually, he landed on Home Health, also covered by Medicare. It included a weekly nurse visit, but no more. It wasn't meeting her needs and had requirements like physical therapy which she couldn't do. Harlow felt they had fallen into a gap. "There needs to be something between home health and hospice so if the person comes out of home health and they're not able to still take care of themselves and want to stay home especially, there needs to be another agency," Harlow says.

"We know there are tons of gaps were are seeing, or cracks in the system and a lot of people are falling through that," says Denise Scruggs, the director of the Beard Center on Aging at the University of Lynchburg. "We're seeing either you have the money to pay or you have nothing, or most of us, which I think is going to be the bulk of us, are going to be right in between where we don't make enough to provide the care that I need or that our loved one needs, but we don't qualify in either way to be able to handle that," says Scruggs.

With an aging population rapidly growing, Scruggs says we're all facing a real crisis with our own parents or ourselves. So many more will be needing elder care, but will the funding, services or staffing be there? We went to Congressmen Denver Riggleman and Ben Cline. First, Riggleman said he was shocked to hear about Harlow's mother being discharged from hospice. "When I saw that it was completely ridiculous so we're going to get to the bottom of it," he said.

We then asked about the bigger picture, with an influx of baby boomers all needing care. "We have an aging population, our mandatory spending is going up, we have to have solutions to that so we're looking into that," said Riggleman. Cline added, "When we have limited dollars being spread to able-bodied working adults like Medicaid expansion it's a problem so we do need to reform health care, the Republicans do have a plan that we are unveiling through the republican study committee."

Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine both say they have introduced bills, some of which have passed, others are in committee, dealing with everything from the costs of long term care and getting more workers in place, to prescription costs and access to telemedicine.

As for Harlow, he spent five months without the type of care his mom needed, plus more ambulance rides back to the ER until he finally found another hospice program out of Charlottesville willing to take her case. Harlow wishes she had not been discharged from hospice in the first place. "Just keeping her on hospice could have saved the government a lot of money because every time I had to put her in the hospital that was a huge expense for Medicare. "

Click here to see the current cost of care where you live, from the Genworth study on elder care.

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