Taking care of Alaska's elderly: many programs in place to help family caregivers and frail seniors.
To become a successful businessperson takes a lot of time and effort, and many people spend much of their lives building and maintaining full-time careers. Yet even as these professionals expect to begin to enjoy the fruits of their labors, they often find that life has other plans in store.
"All of a sudden, these people find that they need to care for aging loved ones, which is becoming even more common as baby boomers age," explained Kevin Turkington, CSA, president of Senior Care of Alaska Inc. and board president of the Older Persons Action Group Inc., or OPAG. "This often requires these family members to take massive amounts of time away from work, which is not good for the employee or the employer.
"Many of these people are salaried, so they get paid even when they are not on the job," he added. "It's a double-whammy for employers who have to continue to pay the employee while losing productivity."
According to the National Council on Aging, family caregivers miss nearly 15 million days of work each year. Nearly one in four households is faced with caring for an elderly relative, with caregivers committing an average of 20 hours per week to provide loved ones with the care they need.
To help seniors and their caregivers, the State of Alaska has put programs into place that provide assistance with everything from nursing home placement to heating assistance to nutrition, transportation and support services. Gov. Sarah Palin recently signed a bill establishing the Senior Benefits Program to aid lower-income older Alaskans, and businesses, now faced with losing employee productivity to senior care, are starting to provide benefits packages that cover the cost of hiring in-home help.
"More and more businesses are beginning to work with companies like Senior Care of Alaska Inc. to set up benefit programs for their employees, so that these employees' elderly relatives can receive non-medical, in-home care," said Turkington. "This frees up the employee to return to work knowing that their loved one is being taken care of, which benefits both the family and the employer."
THE SENIOR BENEFITS PROGRAM
On July 28, 2007, Gov. Sarah Palin signed Senate Bill 4 to adopt the Senior Benefits Program. This program, which began on Aug. 1, provides payments ranging from $125 to $250 a month, depending on a senior's income level. The program replaces former Gov. Frank Murkowski's SeniorCare Program, which expired on June 30, 2007, and the state's Longevity Bonus Program. Though Gov. Palin had included funding for both of these programs in the state's FY08 operating budget, funding for both programs was removed by the Legislature.
"The Senior Benefits Program continues important assistance to Alaska seniors," said Gov. Palin. "I promised that seniors would not go hungry, and we worked with the Alaska Legislature to address this critical need."
Approximately 10,700 of Alaska's 71,683 seniors are expected to qualify for the new program, which they can apply for by calling the Senior Benefits Office at 1-888-352-4150 statewide, or 352-4150 in the Mat-Su Valley. Applications are also online at www.senior benefits.alaska.gov.
Because of the short turnaround time between the program's passing and implementation, current beneficiaries who were enrolled in the SeniorCare Program will continue to receive $125 a month. As soon as their applications for the Senior Benefits Program are processed, seniors who are eligible for higher benefit levels under the new program will receive supplemental payments. Approximately 6,700 low-income seniors were enrolled in SeniorCare when that program ended.
"I think that the Senior Benefits Program is a good program that has the ability to meet the needs of the low-income seniors that it is intended to serve," said Turkington. "I am concerned that a lot of the problems from the previous program may be carried over, the most of important of which is a lack of staffing in the offices that administer the program.
"When seniors call and get a recording, they are not getting what they need," he added. "This is difficult and frustrating for people who can't get out and about. They need to find the right place quickly, and not get passed around."
Turkington recommends the Older Persons Action Group as a good place to go for people seeking information on most senior programs. "OPAG has a terrific resource directory, with programs and services separated by locale," he explained. A nonprofit membership organization dedicated to maximizing the well-being, independence and self-sufficiency of Alaskans 50 and older, OPAG works to improve services and develop programs that foster self-determination of older Alaskan citizens and provides statewide advocacy of older persons' issues through coordination and collaboration with other like-minded organizations. The organization also offers classes and job information services, and publishes the Senior Voice newspaper. OPAG can be reached by calling 276-1059 or visiting www.opagak.org.
STATE SERVICES FOR SENIORS
In 2007, the 25th Alaska Legislature endorsed the continuation of more than $300 million in programs for senior Alaskans through the passage of operating and capital budget bills. "The state of Alaska provides many services to seniors, many of which are not found in other states," said House Rule Committee Chairman John Coghill, a North Pole republican. "What we have tried to do is identify programs that address specific needs of seniors and make sure those are funded first."
Estimated funding for senior programs within the Department of Health and Social Services includes:
* $54.3 million for Pioneer Homes
* $3.3 million in heating assistance
* $5.7 million for nutrition, transportation and support services
* $18.7 million for Adult Public Assistance
* $3.5 million for home- and community-based services
* $173 million for Medicaid for the elderly
* $14 million for disabled individuals 65 and over
* $3.2 million in food stamps
* $6 million for assisted living (general relief)
In addition, the state's capital budget contains more than $9 million in appropriations to projects, purchase and programs that specifically benefit seniors, including grants to senior centers. The state also gives a property tax exemption for seniors who own their own homes, and provides free hunting and fishing licenses to those over age 60 who meet residency requirements.
"In 2006, Senior and Disabilities Services (SDS) provided personal care services, nursing home services, home and community-based waiver services and senior grants to approximately 14,145 seniors in Alaska," explained Rebecca Hilgendorf, deputy director, Senior and Disabilities Services. "Our goal is to provide services that promote the health and independence of individuals. Personal choice, satisfaction, safety and positive outcomes are the focus of our services for individuals and their families." SDS services seniors, adults with physical disabilities and seniors on Medicaid waivers, persons with developmental disabilities, vulnerable adults and assisted-living providers.
SDS, which was recently reorganized, has adopted a "No Wrong Door" policy, which is based on the idea that when people need information on senior and disability programs, there is no wrong place to turn. "We currently have four Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRC) in the state, and we are working on sustaining and growing the ones we have as well as developing more," said Hilgendorf. "We want a person who has a frail parent to be able to call ADRC and get the referrals they need appropriately and quickly. We don't want them to have to deal with the chaos and confusion that some callers have experienced in the past."
SDS recently signed a memorandum of agreement with major stakeholders, including Alaska Housing Finance Corp., the State Independent Living Council, the Governor's Council, the Commission on Aging and the Division of Public Assistance to continue to provide this "one-stop shopping" entry to long-term support services for seniors and people with disabilities. Currently, these resource centers offer information and referral services, assistance in gaining access to long-term support services for private-pay consumers, and comprehensive assessments for those seeking publicly funded services. SDS also recently hired a rural long-term care coordinator to help develop similar services in Alaska's most remote areas.
"Seniors who need help right now can call SDS at 269-3666 and talk to our very adept, very experienced receptionist who can route them to the right people," said Hilgendorf. Information on all of SDS' programs can also be found on the Web site www.hss.state.ak.us/dsds.
No matter what types of services a senior in Alaska needs, there is help out there. "Alaska is quite fortunate in that there are a lot of good programs already established to benefit its seniors," said Turkington. "From tax benefits to financial benefits to medical benefits, the state has some of the best services in the country as far as I've seen."
Senior Annual income Annual income Annual income Household up to 75% Between 75% and Between 100% and Size of AK Federal 100% of AK Federal 175% of AK Federal income limit income limit income limit $250 monthly $175 monthly $125 monthly payment payment payment 1 $9,577 $12,770 $22,348 2 $12,840 $17,120 $29,960