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Alaska must prepare now for long-term care demand as Boomers age

According to a new state-by-state, long-term care scorecard from AARP, Alaska ranks fifth in the nation overall when it comes to meeting the long-term care needs of older residents. But too much optimism about the high marks is a mistake since Alaska needs greater legal support for family caregivers.

The report, "Raising Expectations 2014: A State Scorecard on Long-Term Services and Supports for Older Adults, People with Physical Disabilities, and Family Caregivers," was produced by AARP, with support of The Commonwealth Fund and SCAN Foundation, the nation’s leading organizations promoting long-term care quality.

The scorecard updates its inaugural 2011 report and ranks each state overall and within 26 long-term care performance indicators along five key dimensions: affordability and access; choice of setting and provider; quality of life and quality of care; support for family caregivers; and effective transitions. Long-term care (also called long-term services and supports) is a diverse set of services designed to help older people and those with disabilities; services can be provided in a person’s home, in a community setting such as an adult day center, or in a group residential facility like a nursing home.

While AARP Alaska acknowledges overall progress has been made since the first report was issued, Alaska ranks 21st in its backing for legal systems and support for family caregivers. As it stands, there is no paid family and medical leave for people who are taking care of their older relatives such as siblings, grandparents or aunts and uncles. Not only does this create economic hardships on these caregivers, there are inadequate anti-discrimination protections for those forced to miss work to care for relatives.

The vast majority of older Alaskans want to live independently, at home, as they age -- most with the help of family caregivers. Unlike states like Washington, California and Hawaii, Alaska lacks a solid plan to provide training, information, respite and other services to help family caregivers.

Today, unpaid family caregivers provide the bulk of care for older Alaskans, in part because the cost of long-term care remains unaffordable for most middle-income families. In Alaska, up to 128,000 residents help their aging parents, spouses and other loved ones stay at home by providing assistance with bathing and dressing, transportation, finances, complex medical tasks like wound care and injections, and more. According to AARP, the value of this unpaid care in Alaska totals about $1.1 billion.

Although the State of Alaska does provide family caregiver support services through the Senior Grants Unit and the Medicaid Waiver Unit, there is a greater need than the current funding and regulations accommodate. The scorecard also reveals in just 12 years, the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation will enter its 80s, placing new demands on a still imperfect long-term care system. Further, this generation will have far fewer potential family caregivers to provide unpaid help.

Alaska should recognize investing in family caregivers is a good way to keep our seniors out of expensive long-term care facilities, where few of them want to be anyway. A resolution in support of family caregivers will help Alaskans better understand and support the work family caregivers do, and contributions they make.

AARP Alaska will compile an inventory of the resources currently available to support family caregivers as they help seniors live independently at home; identify further policies and resource options that will fill any gaps that are identified; and provide a recommendation to the Alaska Legislature on how to improve support for family caregivers.

Rosemary Hagevig is state president of AARP Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.