Medicare should cover in-home care for dementia patients

It happened slowly. At first, my grandma would forget small things like where she put her car keys or that she was supposed to pick me up from school. Over time, her condition worsened. She began forgetting whole sentences; conversations had to be constantly repeated. One night while driving, she was in a horrible accident. She had gotten confused while trying to find her exit on the highway, and we’re lucky she lived to see another day. After the accident, we knew she was sick. My mother took her to the doctor, and she was diagnosed with dementia.

According to the World Health Organization, 47 million people worldwide are living with dementia, with 10 million new cases every year. A recent CNN study also reported that almost 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are living with the disease.That means hundreds of millions of family members are affected by this disease, and I’m sure many of them felt the same fear and uncertainty that my mother felt upon hearing my grandmother’s diagnosis.

After her diagnosis, my grandmother’s health declined rapidly. It quickly became clear that she could no longer live alone, and my parents were faced with a difficult decision. My grandma always expressed her unwillingness live in a long-term care facility, and during the onset of her disease, my parents did everything in their power to honor this wish. However, there was just no realistic way to afford the in-home care my grandmother so desperately wanted.

Such in-home care can be very effective in treating dementia patients and in lessening the burden of the disease. However, despite the known benefits, there is very little insurance coverage for it. In fact, according to the AARP, Medicaid, a program meant to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, will only cover long-term care for very short time periods and for specific reasons, such as rehabilitation after an injury or an illness.

I remember when we first took my grandmother to the assisted living facility where she will spend the rest of her life. She cried or became very sad every time we had to leave. It was heartbreaking to see her sitting there alone and vulnerable, knowing the only reason she couldn’t live with us was because we were unable to afford her care. Before this disease, my grandmother was one of the strongest and most independent people I’d ever met. Living in this home, she lost so much of that independence, much of which could have been maintained if she had insurance that would cover in-home care. In losing this independence, her disease took control of her mind much faster than it would have otherwise.

It is an injustice that my grandmother, and millions of other Americans, are forced to live out their remaining years with a horrible disease, away from family, friends and everything familiar. My grandmother was a member of the United States Air Force and served this country by putting her life on the line. How then is it fair that this country fails her at a time when she needs their services the most? It is imperative that our elected officials remember the elderly and advocate for policies, specifically pertaining to Medicare, that will help those who have contributed the longest to this country.

Today, my grandma’s health is beyond repair, and while it may be too late for her, I hope that there may still be time for someone else.

Erika Redding (eredding@live.unc.edu) is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; she interned at Johns Hopkins last year.

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