Women and the costs of aging

October 19, 1998|By Antonia C. Novello

THE BABY boom generation has left its mark on society throughout the 50 or so years it has been around.

From Davy Crockett caps to the Beatles, from Earth shoes to minivans -- the boomers' impact has traced their different phases in life.

Now, this generation is slowly but surely approaching the golden years, and there can be no doubt that the group that once defined youth culture in this country is going to redefine what it means to be elderly as well.

Even before the boomers become senior citizens, their very presence is starting to raise serious questions about programs currently in place to care for the elderly.

Can Social Security handle the huge numbers of baby boomers? What about the way we approach and pay for long-term care?

Long-term care

Two out of five of us are going to need long-term care (whether in a nursing home or in our own houses) at some point in our lives.

Many of us are going to need help paying for it. And yet, our nation's current system for financing long-term care helps only when you have exhausted your personal assets and "spend down" onto Medicaid.

Add in potential changes to Medicaid funding, and it is clear that the entire system of long-term care will need to be examined.

All women, but particularly women of baby-boom age, need to be especially concerned about this issue.

Why? Women are likely to outlive their male counterparts. (The average life expectancy for an American man is 72 years. For a woman, it is 79.)

Also, women are likely to end up caring for their elderly parents or in-laws.

The longer you live, the greater the chance you will need long-term care at some point in your life, and the greater the chance that you are going to outlive your spouse and your financial resources as well.

Most elderly men in this country are married, and when their health starts to fail, their wives are around to help them.

Most elderly women in this country, however, are widowed. Most of them live alone, and many of them are poor. Of the elderly poor in this nation, 75 percent are women.

Even though most people eventually need some sort of long-term care, few take adequate steps to prepare for it financially, and many assume that their regular health insurance or Medicare will pay for it.

This is not the case. In most cases, Medicare covers 100 days of post-hospital care, but only the first 20 days are covered in full.

Coming up short

The patient is responsible for a co-insurance payment for the remaining 80 days. These costs can quickly escalate, meaning it can be only a matter of months before the patient is forced onto Medicaid.

Few people today have access to private insurance for long-term care, and this will need to be addressed as part of any lasting solution to this problem.

Baby boom women, not different from the rest of us women, are vulnerable because so few of them are adequately prepared financially for old age.

A recent poll found that more than one-quarter of the women surveyed had not made financial plans for their elderly years, and only 27 percent of them had accumulated more than $100,000 in their 401(k) retirement plans.

In addition, among the baby boomers, there are more single or divorced women than in any previous generation.

The women of the baby-boom generation, the very women who fought for equal rights and equal pay in the workplace, should take the lead on this issue.

Finding a solution to the current crisis in long-term-care financing could make baby boomers' lives, and the lives of many women in this country, much more secure.

Dr. Antonia Novello, who was surgeon general from 1990-93, is a pediatrician teaching at the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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