By Phil Schenk
The population of elders has started its "Boomer Boom." The Baby Boom generation is now turning 65 very rapidly.
The rate of people living past 70 is even higher. In West Virginia we'll have one-fifth of our population over 65 before 2020 -- ten years ahead of the rest of the country. By that time, 15 counties will have elder populations over 25 percent.
We should be preparing. Seniors need more services than others. Many elders need assistance with the activities of daily living. Some get that help in institutions and some get it at home. Home-based services cost taxpayers less and make elders happier. Still, more than 1,000 senior West Virginians are being kept on a waiting list to get that kind of help through a Medicaid program.
Many people can't afford to pay normal wages to others for assistance in their homes, so they make deals for really low pay with folks who may or may not know anything about elder care. An ad-hoc group of professionals got together and addressed this one issue. With basically no up-front cost, the group created a solution. We now have a state sanctioned certificate program to train direct care workers.
According to a 2011 AARP study, West Virginia ranks 49th among the states and Washington D.C. in long-term supports and services for elders and for family care givers. Our leaders apparently choose to stay at that rank rather than find new ways to address the issues, even in the face of the Boomer Boom.
There are programs to help the elders and caregivers of our state. The Bureau of Senior Services does a great job administering them with limited resources. But the money, much from dwindling state gambling revenue, is running short. The federal money is also drying up as spending is cut. That's apparently more important to many people than investing in help for elders. The result is less and less help for more and more seniors.
Perhaps West Virginia leaders think the tradition of adult children and other family members caring for elders means we don't really have a problem here. But things aren't like they were back when those traditions started. Most families have to have both husband and wife working -- often more than one job -- just to get by. Lots of adult children have left the state for better opportunities.
Those who can help their elder family members take time off work, and many lose their jobs. They spend hours caring for elders when they should be sleeping. If a job loss doesn't ruin their lives, the physical, emotional, and mental strain can. The burden of care often falls on younger family members. A recent study found that 22 percent of the nation's high school drop outs said they had to stay home and care for elders. Surveys done in West Virginia show that there are many teens acting as care givers here.
Shouldn't the Legislature and the governor take some leadership? They don't have to find hundreds of millions now. There may be other, cheaper ways to help elders. What is needed is investment in projects that assess the possibilities for a new system of elder care.
Perhaps we could tap into one of those "rainy day funds" for projects to find less costly elder services. Looking at the population data certainly makes one think that the rain clouds are forming. Will there be leadership to prepare our state for 2020 and beyond, or are we destined to hold our ranking of 49th?
Let's look at new options and new systems of care. We need to find ways to make the existing programs for elders more efficient and effective. We need the front line care and service workers to tell us what could be done better in the system. The managers of those programs need to tell us where the inefficiencies are and how the system could be made more effective. Many in our state government don't believe in making investments into programs that can lower costs so we don't. But we could and should.
If the Governor and the Legislature can't put more money into existing programs, perhaps they could provide leadership and support to start the process of facing the facts. Get the policy people together with the folks on the front lines to develop strategies that are realistic in terms of cost. Of course, brainstorming and planning might take a little investment.
Schenk is director of the West Virginia Partnership for Elder Living, wvpel.org.