It’s quiet because many people have no idea how much has been accomplished in this state by the elder care advocates and their allies in the state Legislature. Statistics help to tell the story. Here are some examples.
In 1992, the nursing home case load in the state stood at 17,000. Under the policies in place 20 years ago, the caseload today would be close to 27,000.
Instead, a number of innovative senior care programs were instituted that extend the ability of seniors to live independently with support from caregivers who provide care in home and community-based settings.
Today, the nursing home population is 10,800, despite a near doubling of the population of seniors 85 years of age and older in Washington state.
According to the Office of Financial Management, the successful move away from expensive nursing home care has saved the state some $3.34 billion since 1996. That’s because the state can serve 2.3 times more consumers per dollar in home and community based settings, compared with nursing home settings, according to a report by the Washington Aging and Disability Services Administration.
This is not to say that nursing homes aren’t a critical component in the elder care continuum. It’s more an affirmation that options providing safe and healthy home care can extend independent lifestyles for those seniors not experiencing debilitating illnesses and chronic diseases.
A state scorecard on long-term services for seniors prepared last year by AARP, the Commonwealth Fund and the Scan Foundation, ranked Washington state’s long-term care system for elders second-best in the nation, leading the way in choice of settings and providers and tops for supporting family caregivers.
At the same time, the scorecard found the state system cost-effective, ranking 30th in per capita spending on long term care.
It all adds up to say this state is one of the best in the country at coping with the challenges of aging in a dignified and compassionate way.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of room for improvement. Senior care programs have taken repeated hits throughout the Great Recession, threatening to unravel much of the good work of the past 15 years. Examples include reduced funding for adult day health centers and home care agencies, and reduced funding for the family care-giving support program.
Budget success these days is measured not by increases in funding. Rather, it’s more about holding the line on further cuts or minimizing the erosion of programs.
Clearly this does not bode well for the future as baby boomers swell the ranks of the senior citizen population. In 2007, 11.7 percent of the state population was 65 years of age and older, or 758,000 individuals. By 2030, the 65 and older population is projected at 18.1 percent in this state, or 1.56 million individuals.
This senior citizen population growth should not be lost on legislators who set funding priorities. Seniors are also a powerful political force. In the 2012 election, some 56 percent of the electorate will be 50 or older, election officials have estimated.
As the economy slowly recovers, the state, its families and its senior citizens would be well-served by a new way of thinking about aging. Elder care advocates call it “aging readiness,” making decisions on housing, land-use, transportation and health care that help seniors live healthier, more independent lives.
It’s time to start treating seniors as resources, not liabilities. Many can care for each other, mentor young professionals, volunteer in the schools and contribute to society in other ways.
To that end, the Legislature would be wise to create House and Senate committees on aging so that issues important to senior citizens would have a more focused forum.