SEATTLE -- Gray hair is the least of it. Aging poses sharp challenges to those lucky enough to face it, from mobility to mental health and independence. As tens of millions of Americans approach age 65, the care and costs are increasingly critical to the nation.
States can take the initiative in transforming the elderly experience by reshaping health care, social services, and tax codes to help the rapidly growing population of those 65 and older, governors agreed yesterday at the summer meeting of the National Governors Association.
Outside the downtown hotel, hundreds of protesters in wheelchairs shut down traffic, seeking support from the governors to force Medicaid to more quickly turn to home-based long-term care, rather than relying on institutions. States have had to get waivers from federal officials to pursue such programs.
The three-day gathering, which ends today, brought no sweeping commitments or new programs, but rather a close look at areas where state government could step in to focus attention, resources, and support for the elderly. Among the recommendations that some states have tried:
Streamline paperwork so that elderly hospital patients can go straight to home-based care rather than nursing homes.
Work with local and regional governments to promote ''elder-ready" communities where transportation, shopping, and social services are easily accessible.
Broaden tax deductions or tax credits for caregivers' expenses.
Within eight years, the nation's 77 million baby boomers will begin turning 65, said Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican. Estimates indicate that nearly half could be bankrupted by trying to get long-term care, he said.
''What kind of future is that?" Kempthorne said.
As the outgoing chairman of the governors association. He has led the governors to concentrate attention on the problem and to share ideas.
Of particular concern for governors is the huge share that Medicaid eats from state budgets, and the driving force of the elderly behind the growing Medicaid program.
State officials estimate that elderly and disabled populations account about some two-thirds of the Medicaid budget. Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor, costs about $300 billion a year, and accounts for about 20 percent of state budgets on average.
Several hundred people with ADAPT, a national disability rights group, rallied outside the hotel, rolling wheelchairs into intersections to stop traffic. They pushed for more attention to the issue governors were discussing inside. No arrests were reported as of midafternoon.
''The goal is for people to be able to choose if they want to receive long-term care in their own home or in nursing homes," said Marsha Katz, a coordinator for the group. ''They would literally rather go to jail than go into a nursing home."
Katz said that a few governors had reached out to the group, but that the association overall had declined to meet with them.
Governors already have been urging more flexibility from federal officials. About 30 percent of the 2.5 million people getting long-term care from Medicaid are served at home or through community-based programs, said Matt Salo with the governors association.
''This is a huge national issue both because of the aging population and with regards to the costs of caring for this population," said Governor Bob Taft of Ohio, a Republican. ''We need to move forward in the most caring way and in a way we can afford."