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Caring for Our Parents and Grandparents

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Caring for Our Parents and Grandparents

By Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA)

Last month, The New York Times ran an article entitled, "Forget the Career. My Parents Need Me at Home," highlighting the actions of a few 'archetypical career women' who made the decision to leave their jobs and return home to care for aging parents who, in these cases, were in deteriorating health. These women, who made significant sacrifices in order to take care of their loved ones, certainly deserve the recognition afforded to them by the Times article. But what struck me as the most important facet of this article is that one of our nation's most widely read newspapers is drawing attention to a growing problem facing our nation--how do we take care of those that we love who require long-term care?

First, it's important to define what long-term care is. Long-term care is typically triggered by the need for assistance with activities necessary in daily life such as bathing, eating or dressing. Most commonly, long-term care is required for patients who suffer from cognitive impairment as a result of illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer's disease. And long-term care can include any number of things, including help with chores and activities in the patients own home, assistance with daily activities while residing in an assisted-living facility, and highly skilled care in a nursing facility.

When a long-term care need arises, it truly is a need. Yet most Americans are not planning for, and are thus not prepared for, the financial impact that long-term care will have on themselves and their loved ones. So the burden of paying for these services is falling more and more to taxpayers--Medicaid, the healthcare safety net for the poor, is currently the largest financer of long-term care services, at enormous cost to the federal government, and county homes are often forced to pick up the cost for those unable to pay for their care.

This problem is only getting larger, and will explode as the baby boomers age. The medical and technological developments of the last century mean that Americans are living longer than ever before. In turn, Americans are requiring long-term care for longer than ever before. We have to create an environment where these services are funded by private dollars, not taxpayer funds--if we don't, programs like Medicaid will become unsustainable.

So, in response to this expanding problem, I've spent the last few months traveling around Pennsylvania and meeting with those who have a significant stake in the future of long-term care, as well as a clear understanding of the challenges this issue brings. These town hall meetings have included members of local aging agencies, long-term care providers, senior citizens, and others. They have given me the opportunity to find out what their needs are, as well as gain their perspective on some of the policy solutions that are being considered. Next week, I will be introducing legislation that was developed based on what I heard at these meetings--the Aging with Respect and Dignity Act.

In trying to determine how to best reform long-term care, three important themes continued to come up--encourage personal responsibility, keep families together, and decrease the dependency on taxpayer funded social welfare programs such as Medicaid--all of which will help enhance the quality of care our seniors receive. By encouraging planning and saving, and both creating alternatives to and improving on current long-term care insurance, the Aging with Respect and Dignity Act will accomplish these important goals.

The New York Times article told a wonderful story, the story of a number of accomplished women who chose to give up their working lives in order to take care of their families. The positive impact their sacrifice had on their family members is immeasurable. But not all Americans have the opportunity, or financial security, to leave their jobs to take care of those in need. If, as is most often the case, no family member is able to leave a job to care for their loved ones, there must be resources available that will pay for someone who can. For example, I propose that flexible-spending accounts that allow for funds to pay for child day care should do the same for adult daycare or home health care for a parent or spouse.

Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest senior populations in the nation. Our parents and grandparents deserve to live out their retirement years in comfort and dignity--they've certainly earned it. Long-term care is increasingly becoming part of the equation for those in their later years, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the quality of such care is as high as possible. At the same time, we cannot allow the sometime overwhelming costs to fall only to the taxpayer. The Aging with Respect and Dignity Act fulfils both responsibilities, and I am proud to be its author.

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