Is East Texas prepared to meet the needs of its aging population?
Taking part in the reporting project are journalism students from The University of North Texas as well as the newspaper’s interns from Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler. Two students are broadcast majors and their work will be featured on our television news partner, KYTX-CBS19.
Look for the stories over the next few weeks in the newspaper, on CBS19 and our websites, tylerpaper.com and cbs19.tv.
By ANDY TAYLOR
When Norma Wyatt straps her dogs to the side of her golf cart for a morning stroll, she's not just giving her canine companions their daily exercise. She's keeping herself active.
The 85-year-old Hawkins resident understands the best way to avoid moving into a nursing home or assisted living facility is to stay busy.
Mrs. Wyatt had to slow down when a long struggle with osteoporoses forced her to undergo a knee and hip replacement more than a decade ago, but it was only a matter of time before she was back on her feet.
In her 50-plus years as a registered nurse, Mrs. Wyatt saw her share of struggling seniors. She spent the last 10 years of her career providing in-home health care to elderly patients.
“It's very expensive,” she said.
Mrs. Wyatt said the cost of living, especially in care facilities, concerns many seniors.
“What we planned was to get them all through college, which we did,” she said.
But the inability to financially prepare for retirement has complicated the couple's life.
“Our biggest problem since we retired 15 years ago is stretching our budget,” she said. “Our income hasn't gone up, but everything else has.”
Mrs. Wyatt said retirement came with financial obstacles. Besides her surgeries, her husband had both knees replaced.
Fortunately, she said, Veterans Administration and Medicare benefits allowed them to pay for the care they needed. Without their operations, the Wyatts might not have been able to maintain the active life they've grown accustomed to.
Ann Hatfield, licensed clinical social worker at The University of Texas Health Science Center Tyler's Joseph Z. and Louise H. Ornelas Center for Healthy Aging, said seniors must be able to afford the care they need in order to comfortably retire.
But for many, this isn't an option.
“You're talking anywhere from $10 to $17 an hour to have somebody come into your home,” Ms. Hatfield said. A nursing home or assisted living apartment may cost up to “$400 or $500 a day, depending on the services you're needing.”
With limited incomes and rising medical expenses, many seniors cannot afford this advanced care. Seniors often make sacrifices to make ends meet, said Kay Odom, supervisor of the Tyler Senior Citizen Center.
“They can't run their air conditioning all day, (and) they have to watch their utility bills,” she said.
Nonessential items, including basic entertainment, also are cut.
“If you have to watch your grocery bill, you can't afford to pick up a $5 or $6 magazine,” she said.
For Mrs. Wyatt, the sacrifices came on a much larger scale.
Her family owned eight acres near Holly Lake, about 10 miles north of Hawkins, where they raised and bred donkeys.
However, when she entered her 80s and the land became too much to maintain, they sold their property, allowing them to move into their current residence.
While the Wyatts' experience was trying, it was not life-threatening.
However, Ms. Hatfield said the most common sacrifice is also the most dangerous.
“They will give up their medications in a heartbeat,” she said,
Ms. Hatfield said the lack or inconsistent use of maintenance medication often results in hospitalizations.
“Some of these folks go to the emergency room several times a week for months,” she said.
The average cost of a single ER visit is more than $1,500 for seniors older than 65, according to consumer health ratings. When they cannot afford the health care they require, seniors often rely on federal resources and aid programs.
Medicare provides assistance with medical costs, while Medicaid helps with other daily living expenses.
However, both services have eligibility requirements and offer support goes only so far.
For many seniors, it might be difficult to understand where and when the benefits end.
“Most people don't know how it works,” said Billy Huff, a nurse practitioner in the Center for Healthy Aging.
Ms. Huff said many seniors believe they can rely on Medicare to pay for long-term nursing home care. However, Medicare will only pay for 120 days of nursing home rehabilitation following a hospital stay.
“At the end of that 120-day period … somebody's got to come up with some money,” she said.
Ms. Huff said the most common way to pay for extended or permanent nursing home care is to enroll in Medicaid. However, the senior must have almost no assets to qualify.
Those without this qualification must pay out of pocket or through long-term care insurance. It is an option that is feasible only for some, Ms. Huff said.
“That is the exception, not the rule,” she said.
Jane Praytor, a 64-year-old retiree, said she and her husband set aside money early in life, hoping to limit the financial burden of retirement.
“We always saved,” she said. “But we were in the minority.”
Despite preparing at young age, however, even the Praytors rely on Medicare and Social Security benefits. And like the patients Ms. Huff described, Mrs. Praytor doesn't know how the aid programs work.
“It's still confusing to me,” she said. “I rely on my agent.”
Suzánne Brown, a financial counselor with Woodmen of the World, said that reliance leaves the potential for abuse. Ms. Brown said she's heard of cases where insurance agents target seniors who do not know what benefits are available to them for free.
However, she said the federal government has imposed heavy sanctions on the industry to ensure seniors are treated fairly.
“If you're a good agent and you're doing what's right for the people you're working with, you have nothing to worry about,” she said. “Agents that aren't doing right are getting their hand slapped.”
But Ms. Brown said insurance agents aren't the only threat to seniors' financial wellbeing. Sometimes, she said, the abuse can come from a senior's own family.
“I think the biggest cost is abuse and being taken advantage of,” she said. “Their own families are typically the worst culprits.”
Ms. Brown said adults often exploit the generosity of their elderly parents. Because seniors generally are trusting of their kids, however, it often goes unnoticed.
Of course, this isn't the case for many seniors who rely on their children for support.
Mrs. Wyatt said her kids have provided a sort of safety net for her and her husband.
“Our backup is our kids,” she said. “If we get in too much trouble, they're all doing well, so they can pitch in.”
The couple has kept their independence to this point, and Mrs. Wyatt said there's no sign of that changing anytime soon.
“I hope we can stay in our home until (we pass away),” she said. “So far, so good.”