Gotham Gazette

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New York City Must Care for Seniors

Rosenthal seniors rally

Council Member Helen Rosenthal speaks at a rally in support of seniors (ALIGN)

Take a close look around your neighborhood and your house of worship and you'll see an aging city. New York, like the rest of the country, is experiencing an unprecedented age wave, as Baby Boomers grow older and life expectancy rises. By 2030 - in 15 years - one out of every five New Yorkers will be a senior.

With this major demographic shift, the need for home care is rising dramatically. Approximately two-thirds of seniors need some form of long term care at some point in their lives. Many are like a 92 year-old member of B'nai Jeshurun we met recently who is struggling to age in place with dignity. She would like to live independently in her home for as long as possible, but the simple physical tasks of daily life are becoming too difficult to manage. She cannot rely only on help from family and friends, and she cannot afford home care services. There are many people like this senior, whose incomes are too low to pay for home care out-of-pocket, but slightly too high to qualify for services through Medicaid.

Seniors should be able to age in place - in their homes - maintaining their lifelong connections to friends and community. As Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel says, "A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old."

As neighbors and people of conscience, we must come together to meet the challenges of caring for seniors.

One small program that has been helping New York City meet these challenges is the Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly Program (EISEP). It helps low and moderate-income seniors over the age of 60 who are above the Medicaid threshold pay for part-time home care services. It also provides home care to undocumented seniors, who do not qualify for federal programs like Medicaid even if they are below the poverty line. Unfortunately, in 2008, City funding for EISEP was drastically cut. In 2008, City funding was at $15 million a year, and today it is at less than $5 million. What was once a robust program currently serves fewer than 3,000 seniors with care needs; that is less than 4 percent of the seniors who could benefit from the program. And the wait list for services is long.

As a first step, the City should increase funding for this vital program. Just this week, the City Council requested that the Mayor include an additional $1.8 million in this year's budget, which would ensure that the 240 seniors on the waitlist are able to receive home care services.

Beyond restoring some funding this year, we need an expanded and sustainable long-term investment in seniors and home care services. Investing more in care for seniors will benefit low-income and undocumented seniors, family caregivers who often juggle work and arranging care for a loved one, and home care workers who earn a living wage working with EISEP clients.

Many of us are dealing with difficult family situations - whether it's how to care for an ailing parent, or planning and saving for our own future care needs. At times it can seem like a private struggle, but we are not alone. By 2030, close to one million New York City seniors could need home care. It's time we heed Rabbi Heschel and start preparing for how we, as a society, will ensure dignity, respect and a decent quality of life for both caregivers and those who receive care.
Helen Rosenthal represents New York City's 6th City Council District and Marilyn Williams is a member of B'nai Jeshurun and a leader in the Elder Care Dialogues.

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