Getting Ahead Of The ‘Silver Tsunami’

Markeshia Ricks PhotoThe speed with which Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s claimed Dom Gatto’s elderly father and mother is only a glimpse at the crisis families will face when Baby Boomers like him start to need more care.

“My parents went from being two fine people to in 18 months they were gone,” Gatto said during a roundtable hosted Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy at the Mary Wade Home for seniors and caregivers.

Gatto spoke of the challenge of taking care of two elderly parents suddenly in rapid decline.

“We had resources,” he said. “But you can’t keep up with changes that are moving so fast. The logistics for a family trying to sort through this — you run out of time before you find your answer.”

He spoke of the agony of deciding whether to keep a loved one at home or put them in a facility that can impact family finances. That puts families in crisis mode fast.

“When you see the cost of some of these places, even if you have it, you’re saying ‘I could put them in the Plaza with room service and limo service for that,” he said.

Murphy said he’s hopeful that a bill he’s been working on for the last couple of years might provide some relief to caregivers.

He has introduced the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act, which would allow people who leave the workforce to care for a relative to save for retirement. The bill does that by creating a Social Security earnings credit for caregivers who provide at least 80 hours a month of care.

The benefit would be good for five years. Murphy said he’d like it to go further but it’s a first step in the right direction.

He’s also pushing for the full funding of the Older Americans Act, which supports such programs as Area Agencies on Aging, Meals on Wheels and State Health Insurance Assistance Programs.

Murphy estimated that some 170,000 people in Connecticut provide full or part-time care to a relative. The majority of those providing that care are women. He said caregivers shouldn’t be penalized as they currently are. Leaving the workforce means you stop accruing credit toward Social Security benefits.

“That’s 170,000 people out of the workforce through their own choice but for others, because there is no other option,” Murphy said.

Murphy argued that all caregiving, whether for a child or an elderly loved one, should be valued just as salaried work is. But he didn’t advocate for giving everyone who stays home a salary; he said he just doesn’t want them penalized when it comes to Social Security.

He also spoke of fighting cuts to Medicaid, which provides primary support for 65 percent of nursing home residents. During the most recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), Republicans in Congress sought to cut $700 billion from Medicaid, ending it as an entitlement.  Murphy said such a cut would have closed adult day care centers, skilled nursing facilities and rehab centers which are supported directly and indirectly by Medicaid. Murphy noted that the Republican tax reform plan currently under consideration would eliminate the ability to deduct medical expenses on tax returns.

Ira Yellen and his wife cared for his aunt and his wife’s mother for 15 years. Both women were in their 90s. Bouncing between Connecticut and Florida got Yellen thinking about the wave of baby boomers like him — often called the “silver tsunami”— who are set to overwhelm the health care system as they age.

“Most want to stay at home, ” he said. “The majority of boomers barely have over $100,000 in liquid assets.”

Yellen is the founder and president of the Aging in Place Essential Toolkit, a site that provides resources for caregivers. He said retrofitting a home to accommodate the mobility challenges of aging, particularly when a person can’t afford assisted living, can cost between $6,000 and $10,000. Does Murphy see any opportunity for some type of tax credit that might assist with aging in place?

Murphy said he does. But it’s hard to get it in a climate where Republicans are focused on eliminating existing deductions for extraordinary medical expenses.

“It is such an important additional issue to think about,” he said. “You could come up with some simple way to make it a little easier to make those changes. We have to have a bigger conversation about what we’re willing to pay for an what we’re not.”

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