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Climate Change Could Sting Allergy, Asthma Sufferers
Overweight Moms More Likely to Have Asthmatic Kids
ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
Pharoah's Wine Jar Yields Medicinal Secrets
Alternative Treatments May Boost IVF Success
Fish Oil's Benefits Remain Elusive
ANIMAL CARE
Animals Respond to Acupuncture's Healing Touch
Rest Easy. When It Comes to Swine Flu, Your Pet Is Safe
'Comfort Dogs' Come to Emotional Rescue
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Hip Replacement Boosts Mobility at Any Age
Autumn Sees More Women With Bunion Problems
Rheumatoid Arthritis a Threat to the Heart
CANCER
Drinking Green Tea May Slow Prostate Cancer
Tanning Beds Shown To Raise Cancer Risk, Study Says
Multiple Screening Strategy Boosts Cervical Cancer Detection
CAREGIVING
With Age Comes Greater Risk of Hypothermia
Babies Born in High Pollen Months at Wheezing Risk
Simpler Sleep Apnea Treatment Seems Effective, Affordable
CIRCULATORY SYSTEM
Drink a Little Wine, Live a Little Longer
Varicose Veins May Mask Larger Problem
Laughter Can Boost Heart Health
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With Psoriasis, the Internet May Offer Hope
Science May Banish Bad Hair Days
Health Tip: After Liposuction
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Sports Drinks May Be Tough on Teeth
Gum Disease Treatment Doesn't Cut Preterm Birth Risk
Obesity Boosts Gum Disease Risk
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Vitamin K Slows Insulin Resistance in Older Men
'Standard' Glucose Test May Be Wrong One for Obese Children
Fish Twice a Week Cuts Diabetics' Kidney Risks
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Omega-3 May Reduce Endometriosis Risk
Adults Need To Get Thier Food Facts Straight
Imagine Food Aromas That Prevent Overeating
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Review Finds Marijuana May Help MS Patients
Could Your Cell Phone Help Shield You From Alzheimer's?
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Cats Can Trigger Eczema in Some Infants
Seasons Arriving 2 Days Earlier, Study Says
Home Renovations by Affluent Families Can Unleash Lead Threat
EYE CARE, VISION
Certain Diabetes Drugs May Pose Eye Risk
Eye Problems, Hearing Loss May Be Linked
Music Can Help Restore Stroke Patients' Sight
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Have Fun This Summer, But DO Be Careful
Good Warm-Ups Could Halve Sports Injuries
Run for Your Life
GASTROINTESTINAL PROBLEMS
Bowel Prep Harder on Women Than Men
Japanese Herbals May Ease Gastro Woes
New Yogurt May Ease Stomach Ulcers
GENERAL HEALTH
Want to Stop Cancer? You Can, Experts Say
Diet, Exercise May Slow Kidney Disease Progression
Sleep and Do Better
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Many Children Will Outgrow Headaches
Zen May Thicken Brain, Thwart Pain
Ski Helmets Encouraged for All
HEALTH & TECHNOLOGY
The Internet Is Becoming One-Stop Shopping for Health Help
Magnet Therapy May Ease Hard-to-Treat Depression
Airport Full Body Scanners Pose No Health Threat: Experts
HEARING
Noise Hurts Men's Hearing More, Study Shows
Summer Sounds Can Lead to Hearing Loss
HEART & CARDIOVASCULAR
Vigorous Exercise Cuts Stroke Risk for Men, Not Women
Western Diet Linked To Heart Disease, Metabolic Syndrome
An Apple a Day May Help Keep Heart Disease Away
INFECTIOUS DISEASE
Older Adults May Have Some Immunity to Swine Flu
Surgical Masks Could Prevent Flu, Maybe
Chinese 'Devil Dung' Plant Could Be a Swine Flu Fighter
INFERTILITY
Obesity May Affect Fertility in Young Womene
KID'S HEALTH
Combo Treatment Eases Wheezing in Babies
Keep Safety in Mind While Your Kids Are Cooling Off in the Water
Teens Lose More Weight Using Healthy Strategies
MEN'S HEALTH
Vigorous Exercise Cuts Stroke Risk for Men, Not Women
Strenuous Daily Workout May Keep Cancer at Bay
Noise Hurts Men's Hearing More, Study Shows
MENTAL HEALTH
Reminiscing Helps Build Emotional Strength
Musicians' Brains Tuned to Emotions in Sound
Estrogen May Help Men's Hearts
PAIN
Tai Chi May Help Ease Fibromyalgia
Alleviating Rheumatoid Arthritis
'Cell Phone Elbow' -- A New Ill for the Wired Age
PHYSICAL THERAPY
PREGNANCY
Acupuncture May Relieve Acid Indigestation In Pregnancy
Obesity May Affect Fertility in Young Womene
Calcium Supplements Cut Blood Lead Levels During Pregnancy
SENIORS
Tai Chi May Help Ease Fibromyalgia
Could Your Cell Phone Help Shield You From Alzheimer's?
Money May Matter, Health-Wise, in Old Age
SEXUAL HEALTH
SLEEP DISORDERS
Better Sleep, Grades Seem to Go Up
Lose Weight, Sleep Apnea May Improve
Sleeping Could Help Women Lose The Baby Fat
WOMEN'S HEALTH
Heart Defects in Newborns Linked to Antidepressants
Supportive Weigh-In Program Keeps Pounds Off
Vitamin D Good for Breast Cancer Patients
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Caring for Aging Loved Ones Can Be a Catch-22

MONDAY, Oct. 27 (HealthDay News) -- In her long struggle to care for her gravely ill husband, journalist and Passages author Gail Sheehy recalls one defining moment.

More than a year ago, her husband, publisher Clay Felker, was being discharged from a New York City rehabilitation facility after spending several months there in his long battle with throat cancer. As always, Sheehy was at his side.

"So, he has to come home now, and we've run out of benefits," Sheehy recalled at a recent media briefing in New York City. "We're coming out, and there's also nobody telling me what I have to do. He has a feeding tube, he has a tracheotomy, he has medications. I don't know where to start."

Desperate, she sought out and hired a "geriatric care manager" -- at $125 an hour -- to advise them. Their insurance might still pay for an at-home nurse, she found out, but only if it's a Medicare-approved nurse -- and there aren't any available in the city.

There are home health-care aides, of course, "but they cannot do medical services like giving a shot, taking care of a trach, changing a feeding tube," Sheehy said.

And then there's the quandary of how to pay for a nurse, should one be available. Once private insurance benefits end, the only option for most Americans is Medicaid, which requires that recipients have less than $5,000 in assets.

Her geriatric care manager spelled it out to Sheehy: If the couple first exhausts all their remaining assets, then Medicaid will cover Felker's nursing care.

And if Sheehy, in her late 60s, wasn't willing to give up all her assets and income?

"Then, you need to divorce him," the geriatric care manager told her.

In Sheehy's case, it never came to that. She and Felker scraped together enough money to hire qualified, in-home caregivers via the network of health care helpers known as the "gray market," and Felker's last months were spent at home, relatively serene. He died in July at age 82.

Sheehy called her 15-year journey with Felker through the U.S. health care system a "nightmare," and she wonders how less affluent and well-connected Americans are faring.

"I'm a journalist, I have a lot of contacts, I've worked all my life and done reasonably well. My husband was successful," she said. "But we had a hell of a time trying to maintain some quality of life."

The phenomenon of middle-class, middle-aged Americans stretched to their emotional and financial limits caring for sick spouses or parents is one that's already widespread and likely to get worse, experts say.

Some statistics:

* U.S. Census figures project that the number of Americans 65 or over will double by 2030, and that two-thirds of today's 65-year-olds will require some period of long-term care later in their lives.
* At the same time, according to one recent study, the number of geriatricians has actually declined in recent years, to about 7,750: that translates to one for every 4,254 older Americans. In addition, it's projected that the country will face a shortage of more than 800,000 nurses by 2020.
* According to U.S. government surveys, in 2004, there were 2.5 million Americans living in either nursing homes or assisted living facilities. The average cost of a private room in a nursing home, according to a recent MetLife study: $75,000 per year.
* The AARP notes that two-thirds of older Americans who needed long-term care now rely completely on unpaid help -- in most cases, family.

The trouble is, "caregivers just feel utterly unprepared for their role," said Carol Raphael, president of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, who joined Sheehy and other experts at the briefing on eldercare. Many of the family caregivers VNS staffers encounter feel left out of crucial decisions concerning their loved one's care, Raphael said. "They are often on the border -- they aren't even included in thinking about how care will be provided."

Another big challenge -- caregivers are often confronted with an array of doctors, procedures, paperwork and facilities, with no one to help pull it all together. "In the current system, there's no one accountable," Raphael said. "That's why it can cost you $125 an hour [for a geriatric care manager], because you're trying to fill that hole."

Too often, chronically ill patients and their families simply lurch from one crisis to the next, with no continuity of care to make sure that once patients leave the hospital, they aren't getting readmitted a few weeks later.

"Care has to be coordinated and supported," said AARP president Jennie Chin Hansen, who has 40 years of experience as a nurse. "We have to be preventing things from happening, because there are things that we know cause you to go to the hospital again: taking the wrong medications while you're back home, for example." Chin and other experts focused especially on the crucial 30 days after a hospital discharge. Close monitoring and follow-up during that month can greatly reduce unnecessary suffering and cost, they said.

Across America, much of the in-home care that is provided is carried out by home health care aides, who are often woefully under-trained, the experts said.

"They are the glue that is holding the home health care system together," said Raphael. But, she added, she is "shocked" that, in most states, "we have very minimum training requirements for these para-professional workers who are handling very complex cases."

In New York State, for example, home health care workers are required to undergo 120 hours of training before getting certification. That might sound OK, until you realize that nail technicians in California need to have 350 hours of training to be certified to work in a salon, Raphael said.

"The pay scale [for home health aides] is also relatively low, and they don't have health care benefits, on top of that," Chin added.

Wage issues are keeping the number of geriatricians at an all-time low, as well. Geriatricians are crucial, the experts said, because they look not at a particular disease or body site, but at the older person as a whole. However, a recent U.S. Institute of Medicine report found that geriatricians remain the lowest paid medical specialty of all.

Boosting the number of geriatricians, nurses and well-trained home health care aides will be a top priority in easing the eldercare "squeeze," the experts agreed. The same can be said for recent moves by government and medical institutions to cut down on red tape and better coordinate care, especially between the hospital and home.

In the meantime, aging Americans should plan wisely, especially since resources vary widely state by state.

"Friends will call and tell me, 'My mother's moving to South Carolina.' I often tell them 'Well, you better check out what's available,' " said Pat Ford-Roegner, CEO of the American Academy of Nursing. "Ask what services are available for long-term care. But, people just aren't thinking that way."

One good resource: The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (www.n4a.org), found in every state, can give details on what's available to you locally.

It also pays to think about how you will pay for long-term care, since Medicaid only kicks in after personal finances are exhausted -- something Raphael labeled "a policy of pauperization."

In the end, it will be middle-income Americans who feel the squeeze most, according to Sheehy, who is currently writing a book about her care-giving experience.

"For people who are very wealthy, if the family cares about the loved one, they'll be able to provide this care. And the poor finally get a break, because they can get on Medicaid," she said. "But it's the vast lower-middle to upper-middle class that is really getting the shaft."

-E.J. Mundell

More information

There's more on the challenge of caring for the aging, and possible solutions, at the National Institute on Aging.



SOURCES: Oct. 17, 2008, New York City news briefing with Gail Sheehy, journalist; Carol Raphael, M.P.A., president and CEO, Visiting Nurse Service of New York; Jennie Chin Hansen, M.S., R.N., president, AARP, Washington, D.C.; Pat Ford-Roegner, CEO, American Academy of Nursing, Washington, D.C.

Last Updated: Oct. 27, 2008

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Caring for Aging Loved Ones Can Be a Catch-22

Gail Sheehy (donated image)