The Scariest Part About Aging

My grandmother was about as Old School as you can get. She was a true Southern lady, a clubwoman who was all about decorum and propriety, and as such, wasn't a fan of new-fangled ways. (She wasn't such a fan of Jim Crow, either, but hey, we all live with our contradictions.) I always got the feeling that given her druthers, she'd go back in time, not forward. So it didn't really come as a surprise when, on 1 January 2000, at age 92, while sitting at the dinner table, my grandmother lowered her head to her chest and quietly left us. I like to think that this was her choice, that she took a look at the upcoming millennium and said "eh, no, thanks".

I know now that my grandmother was one of the lucky ones. Though the last 10 years of her life were spent in a fog of dementia, she was able to live out her years in the house she'd built with my grandfather, in comfort, with round-the-clock care. My mother didn't want to put my grandmother in a nursing home, and we were fortunate that we didn't have to. It wasn't cheap and it was far from stress-free, but somehow my mom did it.

Millions of other Americans aren't so lucky.

Anyone who's been paying attention knows that we are a rapidly aging population. According to the Administration on Aging, between 2010 and 2030, the numbers of Americans aged 65 and over is expected to grow by 75%, to over 69 million. By that time, thanks to the Baby Boomers, the numbers of aged will jump from 13% of the population to 20%. We're getting older at a rapid rate, we're living longer – and we're getting poorer. According to a recent report released by the Kaiser Foundation, 1 in 7 seniors lives below the poverty line. (It used to be 1 in 10.) And in certain areas, the number of impoverished elders is much greater. In Washington DC, my hometown, 1 in 4 seniors live in poverty; 1 in 5 are poor in California.

Of course, most of us are hoping to live to a hearty old age, living independently – and buoyed by an equally hearty 401k. But the older you get, the more things fall apart – knees, hips, cognitive function – and the more likely you are to need assistance. The reality is, 70% of Americansaged 65 and older will need long-term healthcare at some point. For some, living independently won't be an option; moving in with family might not be an option, either. Problem is, for the vast majority of the middle class, the other choices facing the elderly pretty much suck.

Looking to stay in your home? Home healthcare aides average $21 an hour, which adds up quickly if you need 24/7 help. Nationwide, the average cost for a one-bedroom unit in an assisted living facility is $3,293 per month. If you need more intensive medical care, a semi-private room in a nursing home averages $6,325 per month; a private room will set you back nearly $7,000 a month.

Getting older costs. Big time.

Take my friend, "J", whose mother suffers from multiple sclerosis and diabetes. At first, she and her husband had hoped that her mother would be able to live with them, and they built their house to accommodate her needs – wheelchair ramp, the works. But after her mother, then 63, fell and ended up wedged between her bed and a wall for hours, it was clear that they had to come up with a Plan B. Fast.

That's when the fun began as J tumbled down the rabbit hole of elder care bureaucracy. She discovered that her mother, a retired administrative assistant, was too rich to qualify for Medicaid and too poor to afford a private nursing home. J had to liquefy all her mother's assets; condo, pension plan, even her life insurance policy, so that her mother got get the round-the-clock medical care she needed. (J was able to keep some of the insurance money to pay for her mother's future burial expenses.)

Stress-ful. "That's when I started seeing my shrink for real," J says.

This is a story that I've heard again and again, a dilemma that is playing out right now in my own family. One of my family members, a double amputee, was told that if he wanted help, he'd have to hand the deed to his house over to a nursing home facility. Forget about passing anything on to his children and grandchildren.

You shouldn't have to become indigent to qualify for assistance. Nor should you be forced to leave your family with nothing. It's a surefire method to further erode the ever-dwindling middle class. As nursing home costs expand, family assets shrink while loved ones scramble to find care for grandpa.

My grandmother would've been the first to tell you: there's got to be a better way.

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