NEW HAVEN — Jim Russell was a caretaker for his late wife, who had multiple sclerosis, for 18 years.
The illness and almost two decades of care was both personally and financially devastating.
“It is so important what you are doing. I was the forgotten person behind the wheelchair,” Russell said at a meeting called by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and held at the Mary Wade Home in Fair Haven on Tuesday.
The senator has introduced the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act which would allow people who leave the workforce or reduce their hours to care for a relative to get credit toward Social Security earnings for the time they are caregivers to help with their retirement.
“Supporting caregivers is a passion of mine,” the senator said.
Murphy said the positive aspect of family caregivers is that loved ones do not have to be institutionalized and they can stay in their own homes. The downside is the lost wages after the relative is forced to leave a job or go part time.
“The credits for caregiving work would be progressive, varying on an income-based sliding scale,” according to the proposal. “Persons who do not have an income could receive a maximum credit equal to half the average national earnings. The credit would decrease in value until it is phased out for those who make the average national wage or more.”
The Mary Wade Home has a variety of services, including an adult daycare program, Murphy pointed out, which combined with family or other caregiver arrangements is helpful as relatives age.
He said the nation needs these options as the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers across the country require more services.
“But, often, innovative programs like those at the Mary Wade are not there,” Murphy told the group of individuals and professionals involved in all aspects of elder care, from transportation to neighborhood cooperatives and assisted living arrangements.
He said in Connecticut the estimate is that 170,000 individuals provide care full-time or part-time for a relative.
“We got to have a comprehensive approach in this country to supporting people who are aging. ... We got to see caregivers as a co-equal partner in the provision of care for aging America,” the senator said.
The bill also authorizes funding for state programs for medical training to caregivers. The lack of training often results in the patient being readmitted to the hospital. Connecticut, however, is one of the states that require hospitals to train a designated caregiver for a patient who is being sent home.
Under the bill, anyone who provides a minimum of 80 hours per month caring for a dependent relative under the age of 12 or a chronically dependent individual would qualify for the credit toward Social Security. This credit could be claimed for up to five years and is retroactive for five years.
The senator pointed out that the steep cuts to Medicaid proposed by Republicans would put a greater burden on families as Medicaid supports 65 perent of nursing home residents, as well as numerous programs for the elderly.
That bill would have cut $700 billion and ended Medicaid as an entitlement program. It would have forced any providers of services to the elderly to shut down, Murphy said, including adult daycare centers, skilled nursing facilities and rehab centers.
David Hunter, the CEO at Mary Wade, thanked Murphy for stopping the GOP proposal to block grant all funding for health care, with the exception of Medicare.
The senator told the group that the fight is not over in light of the proposed tax reforms under discussion in Congress.
“We need to start re-thinking how we value caregiving. I think we should value caregiving of every sort as work that is valued just as salaried work is throughout this country,” Murphy said.
He said his mother stayed home for a significant period of time to raise he and his sibblings, as well as care for his grandmother, causing his mother to lose Social Security benefits.
Murphy said he is not talking about having the federal government provide a salary for this kind of work. “What I am proposing here is just not penalizing individuals who make that choice,” he said.
Murphy said it is fiscally responsible as it saves taxpayer money from going to a skilled nursing facility.
The senator has been working on this bill for a few years and has a number of co-signers.
“It is one of those hidden crises that doesn’t make the evening news,” the senator said. Given that Connecticut is a high cost state, “people have less wiggle room in their budget,” he said, to absorb any cuts in federal support.
Murphy also backs fully funding the Older Americans Act, which covers such things as Meals on Wheels, in which seniors get hots meals delivered to their homes. In 2016, more than 2 million meals to 23,500 seniors were delivered through the program.
The senator said the fight is not over as the GOP’s proposed tax bill is paid for with $2.2 trillion in borrowing over 10 years.
He said existing law requires an automatic cut in Medicaid and Medicare because of that deficit. Having won the fight on defeating the idea of block grants, there is a new crisis with the tax cuts, Murphy said.
“In seven years, any middle-class tax relief in the tax bill will have expired, but (health care) premiums will have doubled because of the repeal of the individual mandate,” he said. Murphy said at the end of the seven years, all the middle-class tax cuts will have expired.
“It’s a real raw deal for middle-class folks,” the senator said.
Hunter said part of the benefit to his institution under the Older Americans Act are two transportation programs through which they take seniors to doctor appointments and also to pharmacies and grocery shopping.
“Transportation is vital for those who are home and have impairments,” Hunter said.
Ira Yellen, founder and president of Aging in Place, asked whether there were any programs to help people renovate their homes to make them safer as they age or when they take in elderly relatives.
Yellen said surveys have found that baby boomers barely have $100,000 in savings as they retire.
Murphy said giving a small tax benefit to make these renovations would be a good idea.
“Unfortunately, this tax bill is going the other way,” Murphy said.
Hal Spitzer spoke about the Home Haven, part of the Village to Village network, where the premise is to keep seniors in their home as long as possible and to provide the professional services that are needed for that, but also count on neighbors helping neighbors.
Another participant said daycare programs are a big answer to ending the isolation that seniors who do age at home feel, while Eleonora Tornatore-Mikesh said training caregivers on how to deal with Alzheimer’s patients is critical for the patients and the caregivers. She complimented Mary Wade for providing this kind of training.