Vermont program aims to address care of rapidly aging population

Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 6:26 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Aging well is the mission of a program looking to aid Vermonters who need help with tasks in an effort to help them stay at home. But agencies that carry out that work continue to face staffing troubles.

Around 175,000 Vermonters are over age 65. As they get older, some will need long-term care but many won’t. “It isn’t inevitable that everyone ends up in a nursing home. I think that’s the old misconception,” said Angela Smith-Dieng with the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.

But those older Vermonters will likely still need some help with daily activities like picking up groceries and medication, bathing, and other household tasks. That’s where Vermont’s Choices for Care Program comes in. The Medicare and Medicaid-funded program serves around 5,000 Vermonters. About 46% of them are in their home or someone else’s home and 42% are using skilled nursing facilities with 24/7 care. An additional 12% are in residential care or assisted living and receive help with housekeeping, meals, and other tasks. But the program has a problem -- there’s a shortage of personal care attendants and licensed nursing assistants.

Jill Mazza Olson with VNAs of Vermont says one in three positions are vacant. “It’s hard work, it’s important work, but it’s also never been paid very well,” she said.

As part of a sweeping health care bill this year, lawmakers approved an eight percent increase for mental health and designated agencies such as the VNAs of Vermont. But Olson says that funding is just meeting three years of increased staffing and inflation costs. “Home, health, and hospice has been investing in wage retention bonuses, sign-on bonuses, and of course, gas prices have skyrocketed,” she said. Olson is also worried about a proposed six percent cut in Medicare home health services that could come this fall.

But a broader solution to the state’s workforce woes is in the works. That includes big investments in the state’s health care workforce, including $10 million for scholarship & loan repayment programs, and employer grants to train existing staff to provide home health and personal care.

State officials say caring for people as they age is one piece of the equation. But Smith-Dieng says the state also focuses on prevention programs to address issues including diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis, and help people live independently longer. “Yes, we’re going to have to have a robust workforce; Yes, we’re going to have to look at staffing in long-term care facilities, but it’s bigger than that,” she said.

And a big part of that will lie in an action plan to support seniors over the next decade. Vermont’s “Action Plan on Aging Well” due out next summer is expected to provide a blueprint of how the state can house, feed, and accommodate the aging population.

Ultimately, leaders say Vermonters of all ages should consider how to age well and what that means for finances, mobility, and housing. The state’s Area Agencies on Aging can help navigate some of those discussions.

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