SOUTH PORTLAND — On Sunday, the Press Herald published a news article regarding the rising economic insecurity faced by Maine seniors. Featuring older Mainers from various walks of life, the article helped to personalize the issue of aging, and the data cited in the reporting represent a sharp statistical snapshot. However, this article failed to address the fact that not all long-term services and supports are created equal, omitting home-based care completely. It also failed to fully explain the mistakes made and opportunities missed by Maine political leaders as our state has struggled with this crisis.

The article’s focus on the Elder Economic Security Standard Index belies the reality that for the vast majority of Mainers – both current Maine seniors and those not yet 65 – some amount of long-term services and supports will be necessary for more than two years of their life. Each individual experiences their changing care needs differently, but it is impossible to paint an accurate picture of the economic crisis facing Maine’s older adults without acknowledging the near certainty that the additional and significant cost of long-term care will require resources most Maine families simply don’t have.

Unfortunately, the only long-term services and supports option mentioned in the Press Herald’s article was nursing home care, although most people prefer to remain at home or in community-based settings rather than moving to nursing homes; the national best practice in long-term services and supports is to emphasize community-based care options rather than facilities, and the cost of nursing homes is markedly steeper than home care. In fact, the preponderance of long-term care is provided by family caregivers, for whom there is little assistance available while they help parents dress, bathe, prepare meals. Nursing home care is an important but narrow sliver of the care landscape.

But the most troubling assertion in the article was the statement by the head of the Maine Health Care Association, who is paraphrased as claiming that “the biggest challenge facing Maine nursing homes … is the rising minimum wage.” Blaming an increase in pay for those working traditionally low-wage jobs is a particularly shortsighted view of the problem facing our state. Care workers in skilled nursing homes earn, on average, $12.60 an hour, a figure in stark contrast to the annual salaries of those who oversee the Maine Health Care Association. The shortage faced in the care workforce, from nursing homes to home care agencies, must be addressed by increasing wages paid to front-line workers, and to suggest that this shortage is the result of recent minimum-wage rises and not long-term and systemic underfunding of care work displays a willful misunderstanding of the situation.

Thankfully, examples of leaders moving beyond handwringing and bland platitudes and toward meaningful reform abound; unfortunately, such examples were absent from the Press Herald’s reporting. In describing solutions, the article suggests two bills supported by Sen. Susan Collins that would supposedly alleviate the issue of senior poverty. In reality, these pieces of legislation make for good public messaging without directing new resources toward solving the root problems facing aging Americans.

Clearer and more creative examples of addressing care needs for all Maine families exist in state legislatures across the country. In Oregon, the state raised base reimbursement rates for care workers to $14.65 and removed barriers to unionization, addressing workforce issues for home care and nursing home care by treating care work with dignity and respect. In Hawaii, the legislature created a program to support family caregivers with a small stipend, acknowledging that investing in family caregivers bends the long-term cost curve of the health care system while meeting the immediate needs of seniors. And most impressively, Washington state recently approved the country’s first publicly funded long-term care benefit program, to provide access to home and community-based care to all seniors and families.

There is little new ground to be trod in analyzing Maine’s changing and aging demographics, and even less utility in pretending that the challenge will solve itself. With an array of options from other states to sample, Mainers should demand that leaders in Augusta move beyond rehashing the problem and begin enacting solutions on the scale requires to meet our growing need.


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