JEROME — Terri Van Zante left a full-time job making $12 per hour so she could take care of her mom.
The good news: The state pays for her work.
The bad news: It ends up being about $2.58 per hour for the 24/7 job, with no vacations or holidays and lots of extra work to get the pay.
Van Zante had to have her Jerome home certified by the State of Idaho so she can take care of her mother, Shirley Merchant, after years of caring for her father, who passed away in 2010. She also had to get certified by the state to get the $62 per day.
“The amount of money I get is based on the amount of need,” she said. But “the financial cost is not the only cost of being a caregiver.”
As Americans continue to live longer, not only does the number of people needing care increase, but much of that burden falls to children who are aging themselves.
The physical and mental toll on caregivers is phenomenal, sad Shawna Wasko of the College of Southern Idaho’s Office on Aging.
Wasko knows this first hand since she is a caregiver for her parents while also working full-time.
“It’s very difficult,” she said.
The Office on Aging holds support meetings on campus where the caregivers can come and air their concerns or just talk with others sharing the same experiences.
As many as 40 people can show up for the meetings, Wasko said, and the office serves hundreds of caregivers.
The Office on Aging helps with resources for caregivers, including access to homemaker services, Wasko explained. Having someone come to the house to vacuum the carpets, do laundry or perform cleaning tasks can lift some of the burden from the caregiver.
The caregivers assisted by the Office on Aging are often themselves senior citizens, caring for a spouse or older parents, Wasko said.
Van Zante is very appreciative of the Office on Aging and the opportunity to spend an hour and a half a month with others listening to a speaker or a teacher, or just interacting with others.
“Without Shawna and her department, I don’t know how many of us in the valley would manage,” Van Zante said.
She has noticed how some of those in attendance at the meetings are so exhausted it’s visible in their eyes.
What the organization can’t provide is the strength and energy necessary for the caregivers to keep devoting 24 hours a day and huge sums of money to caring for loved ones with terminal illnesses.
“Society needs to know about this,” Wasko said.
The first concern for many caregivers is keeping their loved ones at home, Wasko said. The idea of placing a spouse or parent in a nursing home or other facility raises many other concerns, primary being the high cost and level of care.
That cost can range from $6,000 a month to $10,000 a month, Wasko said.
“Most people don’t have that kind of cash,” she noted.
Even when someone qualifies for Medicaid in addition to Medicare, living in a care facility has drawbacks. Assets such as a home or car would eventually need to be sold to reimburse Medicaid, Wasko said.
“It’s a sad situation,” she said. “If you don’t have long-term care insurance and you don’t have a lot of money, Medicaid will get it all.”
Wasko makes a point to tell those who contact the Office on Aging about a program through the Social Security Administration called Compassionate Allowance. Those under age 65 with certain illnesses can be immediately enrolled in Social Security to ease some of the financial burden on their families.
Since Merchant lives in her daughter’s home instead of her own, she qualifies for Medicaid.
“Basically, she has nothing as far as the state is concerned,” Van Zante said.
While Medicare and Medicaid take care of doctor and hospital bills, other items aren’t covered.
Merchant needs a scooter to get around, for instance. “They don’t pay for the scooter, and I did,” Van Zante said.
That cost $1,500, plus having a lift for the scooter installed on Van Zante’s van, so she could take Merchant places. That cost another $1,400.
Requirements for home safety, including an alarm system and fire extinguishers, must be paid from Van Zante’s pocket, too.
Merchant has a small income from Social Security, but that is supposed to go to Van Zante for her care.
“She’s not allowed to keep more than about $100 per month,” Van Zante said.
That means, when it comes to buying Christmas presents for more than 30 grandchildren, Merchant doesn’t have the money.
The cost of being a caregiver for Van Zante extends to her husband, as well. Because she is no longer working, her husband continues to work, at age 68, to provide her with health insurance until she reaches 65 and qualifies for Medicare herself.
Another cost is the lack of socialization.
Besides watching the loved one get older and sicker, Van Zante has observed, the caregiver starts getting more and more lonely.
Taking Merchant on outings to friends isn’t always an option, so friends stop inviting Van Zante to gatherings.
“You can’t always go places,” she said.
Being able to afford to go on vacation is a challenge, she noted, even if someone could be found to care for Merchant while Van Zante was absent. “There’s no respite care.”
Another burden Van Zante faces as a certified family home is having to record everything she does on reports to the state. Whatever medication Merchant takes needs to be logged, even an aspirin. Daily activities also must be recorded.
“It’s very tedious,” Van Zante said. “I spend a lot of time at my desk.”
Wasko is aware of how much the services available through her office are needed and foresees that need increasing.
“Half of us, by the time we reach 85, will have Alzheimer’s if we don’t find a cure,” she said.
That means the number of caregivers will increase, along with the need for support on all levels: physical, mental and financial.
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