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What about the Old Folks?


The recent tearful story about two women, ages 70 and 88, who were left to fend for themselves after relatives went on a vacation, is meaningful to many in the Baby Boom generation. Casual conversations among those born in the 20 years after World War II are frequently about an elderly parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle who no longer is able to do for himself or herself any more.

Wayne Hubert Chancey must have convinced himself he was doing right by his mother and aunt by hiring a nurse technician to look in on them while he went out of town for 10 days. But how could he think the women would be able to make it on the few cans of soup and $10 he left to buy food? The women had to be taken to the hospital and treated for malnutrition and dehydration.

The incident brings to mind the national health care debate two years ago, which at one time included a discussion of long-term care for the elderly. After a while, though, you didn't hear much about that. No one knew how to pay for it. Powerful lobbies such as the American Association of Retired Persons instead pushed for a benefit that would help pay for adult day care, home health care aides and medical equipment. But Congress never went beyond talking about it.

The problem isn't going to go away. The number of people needing long-term health care will increase from 9 million to 19 million in the next 30 years. Most of those people will be elderly. Some states are trying to fill the void. For example, the Maryland Office on Aging runs a "Senior Care" program, which allows persons who otherwise might end up in a nursing home to stay home. But only 6,000 could get into that program last year, leaving many more on waiting lists.

People are living longer. The 1990 Census showed 500,000 people age 65 or older living in Maryland, compared with 400,000 decade earlier. Those surviving into old age are frequently able to care for themselves. Of the 31 million Americans age 65 or over in 1989, 77 percent were not disabled. But old age and its infirmities eventually catch up. When they do, too many of the elderly end up like those two sisters left on their own with a few cans of soup. There's got to be a better way.

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