(WOMENSENEWS)--I'm on my way to Florida, but not for a vacation.
I had to go down this time because of one of those shatter-your-sleep, panicked phone calls from my elderly father.
"Mommy drove the car into the house," he said in his Eastern European-accented English, his voice cracking, holding back tears. "Into the living room. She smashed the walls and there's water all over the place."
If I wasn't half asleep I may have broken out in laughter because surely this had to be a joke (I live in California, six hours away and three hours earlier on the clock), but "What?" is all I said.
"She drove into the garage and then into the house. She didn't feel good. She got confused, and pressed the gas. I think she's OK," he paused.
Confused? He's one to talk. He has early-onset Alzheimer's. It is she who takes care of him. This is a lot for him to deal with, not to mention her.
'Outlived Our Welcome'
"She shouldn't drive, I shouldn't, ach forget it. We've outlived our welcome."
There was a note in his voice that told me he knew that more than the house and car were screwed up. He knew they were screwed up, old, sick and barely managing. No longer welcome.
He knew what I knew, what many people now know who have loved ones still "alive," saved from death by medical miracles propped up like paper dolls, popping scores of pills a day. This was not how he wanted to live out his life. We as a society have found the medical means to keep our elderly alive, but we haven't found a way to give these older people--most often poor and female--a life.
While there are millions of seniors, such as my father-in-law, who's healthy, strong and still doing yoga into his late 70s--there are those who are in less than perfect health, but still proud and independent who want to continue living a productive life. With today's average life expectancy of around 77 up from 49 a hundred or so years ago, we have not made the necessary arrangements to give those people a hand.
"She shouldn't drive," my father had said. And he's right. Why doesn't Florida and every state retest drivers? Why can't people with slower reflexes swap their driver's licenses for shuttle passes that will get them around their daily lives?
Because my mother was left behind the wheel she took out two rooms and caused over $50,000 damage to the house, not counting the car.
Without the car she has no way to get to the supermarket, their doctors, their pharmacy. They have no long-term care program to bring in help, assisted living is way too expensive and they can't afford to have someone drive them. There's no bus; besides, my father couldn't even walk to a stop. So, like many elderly women striving to maintain her dignity and independence, my mother is stuck in a lose or lose-big situation.
And she's luckier than many of her peers. She's 83 and still has my father. Both of them receive Social Security and have saved their entire lives for their old age. But in her desire to maintain their independence a bizarre accident occurred and whatever equilibrium they had was shattered.
Women represent 58 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries and 71 percent of all those 85 and older. This means women, in particular, are being left to some sad scenarios.
A colleague of mine recently told me about a friend's elderly aunt, a single woman who never married, lived with her sister her whole life and carefully saved her money. She was hit with a catastrophic illness and the resulting hospitalization and medical costs exhausted the limits of what her company's insurance policy would cover and are decimating those life savings, leaving Medicaid as her last resort. Is that any way to pay back a woman who has worked hard, been productive and saved her whole life? What is in store for women like her?
According to a recent census and the Social Security Administration, the bulk of the seniors in the United States living below the poverty line are women. In Mississippi and Texas the number of astoundingly elderly poor climbs to over 23 percent of all seniors, meaning nearly 1 in 4 seniors in those states is living below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, in line with their earning years, female seniors overall have significantly less to live on then their male counterparts. In 2004 the median income for senior women was $12,080, compared to $21,102 for men.
"You shouldn't have to choose between food and rent," the government's Social Security Web site for women says.
Network to Support the Elderly
We need to create a network, a community of medical and social programs that truly supports our elderly that recognizes that families are often spread out geographically and can't always come to the short- or long-term rescue.
We need to establish a better network nationwide for home- and community-based services to provide support for those striving to maintain independence. There are millions of seniors, mostly women, who don't need institutional care yet still need assistance. Our government needs to fund home- and community-based services and programs as strongly as we fund institutional care.
We also need to subsidize assisted living so the elderly can live the rest of their lives with dignity and independence.
According to the 2006 Older Women's League report on women and long-term care, "about two-thirds of the 80,000 people living in assisted care residences nationwide are women. However, rising costs and lack of public subsidies make this alternative unaffordable for most people with low or moderate incomes; the average base price of an assisted living unit is now $2,905 monthly." For my parents it would cost more than double that amount, making it prohibitive.
Organizations such as OWL and AARP are working towards these goals; however their efforts aren't enough to deal with a problem that's only going to get worse. Every seven seconds another baby-boomer turns 60.
It's time we made a priority of helping people live, not just stay alive.
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles based writer and columnist.
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