Compared to a lot of other states, Maine – whose proportion of residents 65 and older is second only to Florida’s – is well prepared to meet the long-term care needs of its burgeoning senior population.

However, that’s not saying much. True, the state ranks 10th best overall, according to a state-by-state scorecard released Thursday by AARP. But the nation as a whole is behind the curve with regard to addressing the challenges of aging – so Maine’s high score “doesn’t mean we’re doing well. It just means we’re not doing as badly as other states,” as Lori Parham, state director of AARP Maine, said last week.

In fact, Maine has some big problems. At more than $100,000 a year, private-pay long-term care is three times the median household income of Maine seniors. And underfunding by the state means that waiting lists for publicly funded home care are long.

With cost and access issues surrounding paid care, many older Mainers rely on unpaid family care. These seniors stay at home with the help of more than 190,000 family caregivers who provide $2.3 billion of care annually. Considering how much family caregivers do for Maine, Maine should do much more to support them.

Elder care is on a long list of concerns being raised as Maine steps up efforts to address seniors’ needs. Members of the nonprofit community in Maine have joined forces as the Maine Council on Aging, helping to lead a statewide aging initiative and advocating for senior-friendly legislative solutions in Augusta. And it’s at the legislative level where Maine could advance on supporting family caregivers:

The role of a family caregiver goes far beyond doing simple chores. Researchers have found that almost half of them carry out medical and nursing responsibilities, like wound care, administering IV fluids and injections and changing ostomy bags. These are critical tasks, but most caregivers aren’t trained to perform them.

That’s why Maine should follow the lead of Oklahoma, which this year became the first state to pass a law requiring hospitals to notify a family caregiver when a loved one is being discharged and to help prepare that caregiver for nursing the patient at home. Training can reduce the caregiver’s stress, prevent burnout and make the experience more comfortable for the patient, too.

 Many family caregivers are juggling their responsibilities to their aging family members and their obligations at work. The typical family caregiver, research shows, is a 49-year-old mother who is employed outside the home and spends about 20 hours a week providing services to an aged loved one.

This woman needs to know that while she’s working, there’s a safe place for her family member to spend time. The Maine Council on Aging’s “Blueprint for Action on Aging” calls for incentives that would encourage employers and municipalities to put in place adult day programming. A state program is in place to foster the establishment of quality child care facilities; family caregivers deserve similar supports.

 Under the Family Medical Leave Act, Maine businesses of a certain size must provide unpaid time off for elder care. But what about workers who can’t afford to go without a paycheck?

A new state program in Rhode Island, funded by nominal employee-only payroll deductions, allows workers to take up to four weeks off a year, at two-thirds’ pay, to care for relatives or children. California and New Jersey already have such programs in place. Businesses in those states have benefited in the form of lower turnover and increased employee morale.

Advances in nutrition and medicine mean that we’re all more likely than ever to need long-term care. Family caregivers are an integral part of the long-term care system, and whatever steps we take to support these carers will put Maine much closer toward the goal of ensuring our seniors have the opportunity to age with dignity.

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