Saturday, July 20

Caregivers Worry About a Lack of Resources for Long-term Care

I am 39 years old. I had to care for my father, who passed from cancer in 2019; my mother, who passed in November 2021 from cancer; and since her passing I have inherited the care of my grandmother. She is 97, diagnosed with moderate dementia and is considered high risk to be left home alone. We had been applying for Medicaid long-term care to receive a home health aide since early November 2021. She finally got a home health aide in January 2022, but it’s been a nightmare. They are so desperate to hire workers that they will take anyone. She was left without an aide on many random days with a late-notice telephone call or text message from the aide needing the day off and the agencies not able to find a replacement in time. I have changed agencies multiple times. My husband has been a great support the entire time. We rely on security cameras we installed in our apartment to see how she is doing while we are at work. How is it on a daily basis? It is emotionally and physically draining. The health care system for the elderly is neglected, broken and inadequate to meet any demands, even the basic needs.

My father, who is now 93, had me late in life, at age 49. My mother died from cancer when I was 19. Literally on her deathbed, she said to me, “Don’t put your father in a nursing home.” Now, at 44, I’m married, I have a 6-year-old daughter, and for the past five years my dad has lived with us. I work about 20 hours a week, which allowed me to do something other than being his caregiver. If I had to put a price tag on the quality of care I provided to my dad, it would probably be the equivalent of a high-end assisted-living facility. But it was becoming really hard for myself, my wife and our daughter. His level of care was getting to the point of something I just could not sustain. He couldn’t be left alone. I wasn’t getting any sleep. Recently, I made the extremely difficult decision to move him into an assisted-living facility. Fortunately, he has the financial resources to do that. For most people, that’s not even an option. I have been happy with the level of care that he’s getting, but when I signed the lease, I felt like I was breaking my promise. I tried my best to follow my mom’s wishes. But there’s only so much I could do, and I had to do it.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in March 2020, but even before then, I knew something was wrong. One day, she went to visit a family friend and was going to donate some clothes to her. Seven hours later, we still hadn’t heard from her. She got lost. Eventually she found a supermarket that was familiar to her and got home. I’m no longer working at all. This has all taken a toll on my life. I do have a younger brother and an older sister, but my sister has a daughter in college and my brother has a 7-year-old. I’m the only one with no children and have always been the one who would take care of my parents. If Mom gets worse and I can’t care for her? That’s something I struggle with. Putting her in a home? In our culture, that’s looked down upon. I was a rebellious teen and she never gave up on me, so how am I going to give up on her? I just can’t see it in me to leave my mom because she needs me.

It was costing us $8,000 out of pocket to have people come into my mom’s house to help her, and that was only eight hours a day. I’m watching her savings just dwindle. And then she fell. And then she fell again overnight. At the hospital, they found she had a cracked sacrum. She was in rehab for the maximum number of days that Medicare will cover and couldn’t return home. Because she owned a house, had two rentals, savings and two cars, she had to pay long-term care costs out of her pocket. I think my mom had about $18,000 in the bank. She had five life insurance policies in her children’s names. We cashed out the policies. In one year, she had to pay $65,000 for her care at the nursing home and spend down an additional $37,000 to be able to be eligible for Medicaid. We just sold her house. She passed in October. The state says we still owe close to $20,000 for the year Medicaid paid for her nursing home. I moved here in February of 2019. I certainly didn’t expect to be here going on five years. It was awful — personally all the time and energy and money to do this for her — and it was great. I was able to protect her and make sure everything was OK for her. I said at the memorial service that my mom was there when I took my first breath, and I was there when she took her last. If that’s not the circle of life, I don’t know what is.

We had it all planned. My mom was going to live with us. She has some cognitive issues from the stroke. All of her long-term memory is just fine. Her short-term memory is just nonexistent. We looked at what it would cost for home care. Even if we limited it to just eight hours a day, it’s more expensive than the assisted-living place that’s 10 minutes from our house. It’s a wonderful little place. It’s $4,500 a month. That’s a still a lot. She’s run out of her own money. There’s no more than the $1,500 she gets from Social Security. We talked to the place and got it down to $4,000. I got really good responses from GoFundMe. A lot of my former students and friends put in some chunks. I hate begging for money. My wife and I are at least at the age where we don’t have kids we’re supporting any more. But we’re concerned we are going to hurt our own retirement savings. My wife is already 65. We need to keep our retirement plan going, too. They told us: Don’t ruin your own retirement over this. Well, agreed, but we’ve got to take care of my mom, too. We have a relative who’s giving $500 a month. I’m going to take on some extra work to cover the costs. I felt my career could wind down over the next few years, and now I’ve got an $1,800 bill added to my finances from now until whenever.

My mom was in independent living. I had someone coming in the morning to get her up. Nobody is getting paid enough to say: “Now, come on, you really want to get dressed. Let’s pick out some earrings.” I should have tried 20 people in hopes of finding one who did that. No one is going to waste time with an old person who doesn’t want to do what they don’t want to do. It’s hard to care about grumpy people when you’re barely putting food on the table. My mom got sick and then needed to be in a wheelchair in assisted living. When she sold her condo, she had about $2,500 a month in retirement and she had about $120,000 in the bank. That starts going fast when you hit $7,000 or $8,000 a month. Everyone’s so worried about being sued by people that every time something happened they wanted her to go to the E.R. I wish I had known that no one was going to help me. I would have kept her in independent living and gone through hiring people until I found one. My husband and I were both retired, fortunately. We couldn’t leave town. We tried twice and had to come back. Ironically, the last place she was in, because she was going to run out of money, was the best place. The room wasn’t as big, but the staff were the best there. Mom died in August 2022.

There were wildfires where my mother lived out in California that were getting very close and were causing her health problems. Between that and a series of in-home falls and her inability to drive herself to different places, she finally called in November of 2017 and said, “I think I need to come live with you.” We found a house that would be adequate for both my family and her needs. Her dementia started to get worse. We looked at adult day care and found a local place. It was tremendously expensive to do that. But they were good until they got to a point where they contacted me and said she’s not following directions, she’s refusing to do appropriate hygiene. This was early 2022, and we had to pull her out of that service. In early April she started getting violent and would threaten my husband that she was going to kill him by chopping his head off. And then she would tell me she was going to kill my daughters. One night I had her taken to the hospital and they found she had been in kidney failure. She was still very violent. They looked at placement in a nursing home. Because of the fact she was violent, she couldn’t be placed anywhere. They had to send her home with us, and we had to keep her chemically sedated. From the time she came home till the time she died, it was seven days. We kept our daughters from coming upstairs. We didn’t want them hearing and seeing what was happening because it’s not something I would wish anybody to ever go through. It was awful.

Jordan Rau is a senior reporter for KFF Health News, part of the organization formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation.