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The ‘silver tsunami’ is here – are we ready for it?

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Roughly 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, and ten years from now one in every five Arizonans will be 65 or older.

Fortunately, Arizona has the framework to help keep many older Arizonans in their homes – where they want to be – as they age. This also is less expensive than state-supported long term care homes.

Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy

While the senior population has been increasing, the funding to provide these services isn’t keeping pace with the needs. We all see seniors in need, especially those who are hopeless and homeless, living on the street. We can’t stop the clock and we can’t wait any longer, because this problem is only growing.

What’s the fastest growing portion of Phoenix’s homeless population? Seniors! Many of whom are homeless for the first time.

While we appreciate the recent attention that senior policy issues have been receiving in previous budgets, the over reliance on one-time funding to address these issues have their limitations, as these issues have long-term implications and require ongoing funding. Each of the budgets for Home and Community Based Services, the Arizona Long Term Care System, and Adult Protective Services interact, providing important continual support. The needs of the providers will only increase as the aging population grows. Those needs are especially large among the 80 and older population with complex medical issues and women who often outlive their husbands and are financially vulnerable.

Among the services offered to vulnerable adults, the Adult Protective Services budget allocates $295,000 to help resolve emergency situations like one-time rent payments and resources for food.

Providing minimal assistance through Home and Community Based Services, keeping vulnerable seniors in their home can average about $2,200 a year – a mere fraction of nursing home care costs that can average more than $84,000 annually.

Home and Community Based Services utilization is also seeing an 11% shift from home to community settings placements, such as assisted living centers and homes. This may be due to the uptick in diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is now the fourth leading cause of death in the state of Arizona.

The number of Arizona Long Term Care System members in specialty care placements serving individuals with wandering dementia has increased 26.4%.

Current funding levels and cost-saving mechanisms simply are not enough, especially considering the costs should an elderly person become homeless, estimated to be $31,000 a year in community support.

One mile away from the state Capitol, more than 1,300 seniors will be served throughout the year at the Central Arizona Shelter Services. Over the last three years, Central Arizona Shelter Services has absorbed a 50% increase in the number of older Arizonans in need. These seniors have a longer and more difficult time procuring housing and typically are at the shelter or on the streets for longer periods than others.

Nearly 70% of seniors that are helped at Central Arizona Shelter Services have one or more disabling conditions and need more care. Once they find themselves without a home, their health care needs soar, not uncommonly causing repeated and costly visits to the emergency room. Simply put, a shelter is not a place for an elderly person with chronic health care needs.

One vital resource for homeless seniors, Justa Center, was in frightening danger of closing this past summer until the Area Agency on Aging swept in to purchase the center. Justa Center isn’t a shelter and elderly served there during the day must get to Central Arizona Shelter Services early enough in order to get a bed, as the shelter operates at 100% capacity every night and turns many away.

There are two separate but critical aspects to solving the problem: Resources to prevent seniors from becoming homeless and what happens once they are. Neither are being sufficiently funded or discussed.

Homelessness is a growing issue for Arizona and the current structure isn’t cutting it. We save when we keep older Arizonans in their homes. It makes economic sense for Arizona to invest in our older citizens, and make modest sacrifices to help them live at home.

Not making these sacrifices creates the cascading effect we’re seeing: Without adequately funding Adult Protective Services, vulnerable adults don’t have access to emergency funds to stay at home. Insufficiently funding Home and Community Based Services means many seniors can’t afford to safely live at home, which puts further pressure on the strapped Arizona Long Term Care System budget to pick up the slack. There’s a direct correlation between too many Arizona seniors becoming homeless for the first time and the lack of necessary funding.

Homelessness is all around us. Notice those asking for change on the corner – notice their age.  Seniors are Arizona’s fastest growing homeless population.

Our elected officials must work together with stakeholders and providers so together we can reduce senior homelessness, help older Arizonans remain in their homes, and age with the peace and dignity they deserve.

Dana Marie Kennedy is AARP Arizona state director.

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