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Health

Desire to 'Age in Place' Presents Challenges for Maine Caregivers

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Tom Porter
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MPBN

Momentum is building in Maine toward addressing the state's aging problem. Maine has the highest median age in the nation, and the second-highest proportion of seniors, after Florida. For seniors who seek to grow old at home - or "age in place," as it's called - the pressures are increasing on caregivers. We have the first of a three-part series looking at the challenges faced by those Mainers who find themselves acting as unpaid caregivers for elderly, or ailing, family members.

 

With the help of her daughter, Erica, 91-year-old Jane Magnus painstakingly makes her way down the stairs. Jane shares a house in a leafy southern Maine suburb with Erica and Erica's spouse. For the last three-and-a-half years, Erica's mother has occupied an apartment in the ground floor. It's small but comfortable, and Jane likes it.

"It has a kitchen and a bathroom and a gorgeous view, and I love it," she says, "and I'm very happy here."

But life is a struggle for Jane - a bright-eyed former actress who remains mentally alert despite her physical shortcomings. She struggles with arthritis and gets around slowly with the help of a walking frame or a motorized wheelchair. She also recently suffered a stroke and finds it difficult to speak. She worries about the future and the possibility that she may have to end her days in a nursing home.

"I need the girls to take care of me," she says. "I can make my own breakfast but they give me all the help. And I'm afraid because my arthritis is getting worse."
 

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Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
/
MPBN
Erica Magnus, left, with her mother, Jane Magnus.

"I usually come down and have tea with her, just to hear about how the night went," says her daughter, Erica, "because the night is difficult. As with most older folks she visits the bathroom quite often and so that's always a worry. So when I come down with tea in the morning, I'm always, 'OK, well, we've gotten through a good night.' "

"One night without falling," her mother adds.

Taking care of mom is not a full-time job, but it requires enough of Erica's time to prevent her from taking a full-time job. In fact, says Erica - who's a professional academic - she's not been able to work full-time since 2005. That was when she had to quit her job at Princeton University to take care of her father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

For a while, she was a full-time caregiver for both her parents, unable to take any paid work. Her father died a couple of years ago, and Erica now works part-time teaching English literature at the University of New England. She says she would love to be able to return to full-time work, but that simply isn't an option at the moment.

"Although I love you, Mama - I'd do anything for you, and have and always will - I have given up a significant portion of my career and huge part of my major earning years," Erica says.

Erica - who has no siblings - says the challenge of caring for her parents has meant she's been unable to plan for her own retirement. "I will just say this highly impacted my future - my fiscal future is rather bleak," she says.

"If I get helpless I don't know what you'll have to do," her mother says.

"Well, now, we're not going to think that way, Mom," Erica responds.

For Erica's mother, Jane, the frustration is compounded by the fact that the Magnuses are an ostensibly well-off middle class family who had done everything right to plan for retirement. Her husband was a music professor, she was an arts administrator. They worked until they were in their late 60's, paid for their house and had a good pension.

"We thought we were safe," Jane says, "but Alzheimer's and crippling arthritis made us not safe. All of a sudden everything was gone, and there was no money."

"Everything had to go for the Medicaid spend down in order to get my father into a nursing home, and this nursing home was medium-priced at $350 a day," Erica says.

Erica is one of an estimated 200,000 Mainers looking after ailing family-members or friends. According to a recent study by the AARP, these informal caregivers provide the  state with nearly $2.5 billion worth of free healthcare every year. And by the year 2030, one in four Mainers is forecast to be over the age of 65.

That's prompting some state lawmakers to make the issue a priority when they return to the Legislature next year. "The demographic reality is a challenge which we can change into an opportunity by ensuring our seniors can age independently in their homes and communities," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves last month, as he unveiled a package of measures dubbed the "Keep Me Home" initiative.

State lawmakers will be asked to support plans to send a $65 million bond package to voters that would be used in a variety of ways to help Maine's senior population age in place. The initiative calls for the construction of 1,000 energy efficient apartments for elderly Mainers across the state. There are also proposals to increase resources for in-home care options - something that would take the pressure off caregivers like Erica Magnus.

Next week, in part two of our series, we talk to a caregiver who turned to the local community for help.