SACRAMENTO — For some senior citizens, the prospect of having to leave their homes to live in a nursing facility is disturbing and even unthinkable.
Without needed help, however, many elderly people are prematurely forced to spend their remaining years in nursing homes, away from familiar surroundings and with perhaps less opportunity for visits from family and friends.
California, which has the nation's largest senior citizens population of more than 4 million, in 1985 launched an effort aimed at helping the elderly live in their own homes for as long as possible.
The Department of Aging, under 1984 legislation sponsored by the Deukmejian Administration, set up programs in 12 cities at a cost of $4 million to help senior citizens obtain local services that would enable them to continue living at home.
They are called "linkages" projects, because staff members link or guide seniors to the services they need to keep functioning in their own homes. The effort is partly aimed at saving taxpayers the higher, long-term costs associated with nursing home care.
The wide array of services available to the aged in local communities includes house cleaning, cooking help, health care, hot meals delivered to the home, transportation, counseling and legal aid.
"Many seniors are not aware of local services that are available to them or they don't know how to get them," said Jerry Wenker, special assistant to the state director of aging. "That's why there is a dramatic need for the 'linkages' program."
Such programs also ease the burden of people having difficulties meeting the needs of their aged parents, Wenker said.
He said program staff members often act as "a surrogate family member" to the elderly, telephoning or visiting them on a regular basis to see how they are getting along.
Loss of Dignity
"Seniors don't want to be forced unnecessarily into nursing homes," Wenker said. "It scares them to leave their homes. To many, it's a loss of dignity and independence to be placed in an institutional setting. This department tries to help them remain independent and have options."
The Department of Aging last March contracted with local agencies to operate three "linkages" programs in Los Angeles and one each in Oakland, Ukiah, Burlingame, Eureka, Salinas, San Francisco, San Diego, Stockton, Pasadena and Long Beach. Forty-seven agencies had sought the contracts.
"The preliminary indication is that the programs are working extremely well," Wenker said, adding that their success could lead to programs in more areas of the state.
Here is how "linkages" programs have aided senior citizens:
- An 80-year-old woman was exhausted from taking care of her 82-year-old husband, who had suffered a stroke. Day care was arranged for her husband to allow the woman the rest she needed to maintain her health and continue caring for her husband on a less strenuous basis. She also received counseling to improve her management of the couple's limited funds.
- A 72-year-old man became ill at a San Francisco bus station after arriving from New York. He had no money and no place to live after his discharge from a hospital. An apartment providing meals was found for him by program staff members, who also helped him obtain Social Security and other support benefits.
- Caring for an 83-year-old man suffering from the mentally disabling Alzheimer's disease was becoming an overwhelming task for his 82-year-old wife and their three adult children. To ease the family's burden, day care for him was arranged at a center for Alzheimer's victims. Family members were directed to a support group that advised them on the best methods for caring for Alzheimer's patients at home.
- The heart condition of an elderly woman improved to the extent that she no longer needed nursing home care. However, her only place to go was the home of her mentally ill daughter, who was experiencing serious financial difficulties. Program staff members arranged for in-home care, hot meals and other assistance to make it possible for the mother to live with her daughter.
Wenker said only a few states offer "linkages" programs and none are as extensive as California's.
The program, which also serves functionally impaired adults, was praised by Gov. George Deukmejian in a recent statewide radio address.
"If a senior wants to remain at home, but needs some special help, we should try to make this choice available," the governor said.