My turn: How the next governor can help aging Californians

By Cheryl Brown, Special to CALmatters

California’s next governor will face an issue that has the potential to wreak havoc on the state budget: California is aging. We may not think about it, but every day, 1,000 people turn 65.

The Public Policy Institute of California did the math and found that California’s senior population will increase by nearly 90 percent, or 4 million people, by 2030. That’s only twelve years away. If we are to be even remotely prepared for the expected 4 million new seniors that will need services, we need to start today.

This increase will put more stress on our health care system and long-term care programs.

Let me focus on the long-term care part of the issue. I became very familiar with it during my tenure as the chair of the Assembly Aging and Long-Term Care Committee.

I dedicated countless hours addressing this issue, authoring the resolution that created the California Task Force on Family Caregiving that is now housed at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

Here are three issues for the next governor to consider:

  • As the population of low-income older adults swells in the next 15 years, the Medi-Cal budget will explode with increased payments to hospitals, nursing homes and physicians unless the state adopts innovative and cost-effective programs to provide services, like home-based primary care, expanded Denti-Cal and telemedicine.
  • There are nearly 4.5 million unpaid caregivers in California. The next governor must support and professionalize paid and unpaid caregivers because we are witnessing an escalation in generational poverty as family caregivers must opt out of the workforce.
  • The governor must appoint one agency to coordinate aging services and simplify the process so consumers can find services with a single 1-800 number and website. The labyrinth of departments, agencies, programs and regulatory structures across the Health and Human Services Agency creates confusion for consumers and their families and affects access to care.

When we discuss long-term care for seniors, we are not discussing placing people in nursing homes when they need help taking care of themselves. Long-term care is so much more than that. While it is important that California has enough facilities to provide nursing homes—if wanted by the person—it is only part of the equation.

A larger portion of the long-term care discussion involves in-home care services that enable seniors to age in place with dignity and independence. This topic has gained attention as our nation focuses on an invisible workforce: unpaid family caregivers, saving the system some $87 billion dollars.

This topic hits home for me. I have been a caregiver to my older loved ones throughout my life.

At 12 years old, I cared for my maternal grandmother every day after school, relieving my aunts so they could go to work. And that was just the beginning. Since then, I’ve served as a caregiver to my paternal grandmother, my great aunt, my mother and now my husband.

As California’s senior population grows, we are in dire need for more caregivers. What’s more, we will need to find ways to support their efforts and ensure there are services available to assist them.

Enhanced support for caregivers will, in turn, reduce the burden on our healthcare system as our older adults will be able to age in place while utilizing quality support services.

As I can attest, it is not easy work and the hours are long. But without these selfless people, who would care for our moms, grandmas, aunts, and friends? Especially when taking into note California’s massive workforce shortage.

I can’t think of a better way to honor our family caregivers than if our two candidates for governor make this a priority issue in the remaining days of the election.

Once the confetti is swept up from the victory celebration, the challenge of addressing our looming senior care crisis will not fade. It will be front and center, not next week, not next month and not next year, but now.

Cheryl Brown, a former Democratic Assemblywoman from Rialto, is a member of the California Commission on Aging, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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