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ELDER CARE: Caring for California's Aging Population : RESOURCE GUIDE: CARING FOR THE ELDERLY : Q & A: Commonly Asked Questions About Caring for Elderly

May 20, 1990

Question: What is the first step in caring for an elderly person?

Answer: The answer depends on the particular situation. In some cases, there is a dramatic event--a fall, a heart attack--requiring families to swing into action and change their life styles almost overnight.

In other cases, changes occur slowly; relationships and responsibilities evolve over months and years. Whatever the situation, experts urge care givers not to be afraid to admit that there are problems and to seek advice in solving them.

A word of caution: In dealing with an older person, family members should not assume that they know what they--or their elder relatives--actually need. In most cases, if not all, families could benefit from some kind of professional help or counseling to sort out the many complex issues associated with learning how to adjust to changing family relationships and how to care for an aging relative.

Q: Where can families go for help?

A: The list of places to check is almost endless: employers' group benefit offices, churches and synagogues, hospitals, university medical centers, government social service agencies. Government agencies are usually referred to in the telephone directory as family services or elderly or senior citizens' services and are listed under city, county or state headings.

Private consultants and private senior citizens programs are listed in the telephone book under family services, gerontology, elder care, aged or aging, senior citizens. (For resources, see special pull-out guide page 9.)

Experts also urge families not to be shy about asking friends and acquaintances for referrals.

Q: Under what circumstances should the elderly move out of their own homes?

A: The simple answer is whenever they want to. Until recently, moving out of the apartment or selling the house was the only thing most families knew to do for the elderly who had become so frail or disabled that they could no longer take care of themselves.

Today, however, most cities have enough government and private services available--both free and for a fee for those who can afford to pay--that families have options to nursing homes. Studies have shown that most people, whatever their age, would rather live in their own homes than go to a nursing home or move in with their children. Talk with the elderly person and then to try to use the resources of the community to meet that person's needs.

Q: What is long-term care insurance? Is it a wise investment?

A: Long-term care insurance is a new form of insurance that pays many of the costs of growing old not covered by Medicare or by private health insurance policies. The new policies cover mainly the costs associated with entering a nursing home. According to Consumers' Union, a long-term care policy is not advisable for people under 60 unless the policy offers a reliable way of keeping benefits current with inflation in nursing home costs.

For those over 60 who are more affluent and want to protect their estates, policies from top-rated companies may make sense, but consumers need to read the fine print about what is covered, for how long and at what cost. Those of modest means should not consider these policies because, if they require nursing care, they will quickly qualify for Medicaid.

Q: What if an elderly person has little or no income or savings?

Are there programs to help?

A: One of the reasons that life is better economically for today's elderly has been a tremendous growth in Social Security, a program of retirement benefits for which virtually every American is eligible. Most senior citizens are also eligible for Medicare for health benefits, and elderly people who have few or no assets can collect Medicaid benefits. In addition, there are numerous social service programs--some supported by federal, state and local governments, others financed by private foundations--to which lower-income senior citizens may apply. Because funding levels and eligibility requirements change frequently, as do the needs of the elderly, it is important to check regularly with counselors at local senior citizens' centers to learn what is available and who is eligible.

Q: Where should elderly people go for medical care? To a private doctor or an HMO?

A: Health maintenance organizations are prepaid medical plans that both insure people against the costs of medical care and provide that care. Services range from office visits and medications to surgery.

If there is an HMO nearby and it will admit an elderly person to the program--some refuse to take high-risk patients--and if the program has a good reputation, this may be an easy and economical way to obtain health care.

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