Aging Georgia: State studies care for growing, older population

Derrek Vaughn/The Valdosta Daily Times

James Carter Jr. sits with his dad, James Carter Sr. Carter Jr. along with his two brothers share caretaking responsibilities for their father who has dementia and has suffered multiple strokes.

ATLANTA — James Carter Jr. and his two brothers do all they can to keep their 89-year-old father in the Valdosta home he has lived in for the last three decades.

But that has by no means been easy.

The three sons take turns staying with their dad, James Carter Sr., who served in the military and later worked at a local paper mill as a mechanic.

Dementia and multiple strokes have now robbed him of his speech and limited his mobility, so the sons are there around the clock to feed him, give him his medication and look after his day-to-day needs.

“He took care of us for 18, 20 years. No questions asked. Fed us, clothed us, took care of us,” said James Carter Jr., who is a 65-year-old retiree in Valdosta. “So I feel like this is the least that you can do, is give back.”

But in the future, there will be fewer adult children like James Carter Jr. around to care for aging parents, as baby boomers become the ones who need care.

“Baby boomers had fewer children than the generation before them, and so there’s a lot of senior orphans who will be created from that,” said Rep. John LaHood, a Republican from Valdosta. “There will not be as many adult children who are able, or willing, to take care of their aging parents.”

And by the year 2030, when these baby boomers will all be older than 65, one in every five Americans will be retirement age, according to the U.S. Census. It will mark the first time in U.S. history that older people will outnumber children.

That’s still a decade away, but some say the impact of America’s aging population can already be felt now.

“The silver tsunami is on us,” said Kathy Floyd, who is the executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging. “It’s not down the road. It’s not coming soon. It’s on us now.”

An aging population

And that tsunami is poised to one day crash into the state’s budget, LaHood said.

LaHood, who owns assisted living and memory care facilities, convinced his colleagues this year that the issue — and the potential impact on the state — warrants a closer look. House lawmakers backed his request to form a study committee, which LaHood said he hopes will suggest legislative fixes as soon as next session.

In Georgia alone, the population of residents who are 65 years and older is expected to leap from 1.3 million three years ago to 2.9 million in 2040, according to U.S. Census figures cited in the measure forming the study committee. The fastest growth will be among those 85 and older.

And about half of older Georgians were living in poverty as of 2016, with many of them well below the federal poverty level.

“You have affluent seniors who can afford senior living options out of pocket, but you have these poor seniors who can’t afford these private pay options,” LaHood said.

“A lot of times they’re getting funneled to the most costly option out there because that’s what the taxpayer-funded programs are approved for,” he said. “So we have to look for more economical ways to take care of these seniors and ways to keep them more independent as long as possible.”

Looking for alternatives

LaHood said he wants to explore proposals that will help redirect seniors who do not need nursing home-level care to lower-cost alternatives.

“I’m not a proponent of increasing or growing taxpayer-funded social programs, but if we have this growing demographic that is going to need care and if the current process is funneling people to a more costly care option, then we may need to look at changing some policy so that the taxpayer-funded programs are more cost-effective, which could mean opening up different types of care settings to a government-funded program,” LaHood said in an interview.

LaHood said he has no specific policy change in mind at this point. His committee will likely start meeting next month.

But as an example of a less expensive option, LaHood has pointed to a Medicaid-funded program that is available for small personal care homes, which lack some of the more specialized care found at larger assisted living facilities. The program, though, is off limits to assisted living facilities, which can only care for people who are able to pay their own way.

In Georgia, assisted living facilities are still a relatively new class of senior care. Lawmakers created the new designation about a decade ago, but the change came with limitations, such as being ineligible for Medicaid. The move was meant to reduce the number of seniors being fast-tracked to nursing homes.

It’s unclear right now whether the nursing home industry would be open to revisiting the limits on assisted living facilities.

“The association supports the proper and safe placement of residents in the setting that appropriately meets the care needs of each individual,” Devon Barill, director of communications for the Georgia Health Care Association and the Georgia Center for Assisted Living, said in a statement Tuesday.

And it also remains to be seen whether long-term care might factor into Gov. Brian Kemp’s request to the federal government for a Medicaid waiver. LaHood, who will lead the study committee, said he, for one, hasn’t ruled it out.

The South Georgia lawmaker said he wants the panel to, at a minimum, bring attention to what he sees as a potential looming crisis.

“Every year, the population of older Georgians is growing,” he said.

“We don’t want to get caught flat-footed and then spend more money than we need to because we’re unprepared and we’re having to spend money on more expensive solutions, versus being proactive,” he said.

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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