OPINION: Rising costs at senior communities leave residents fearful

Census projections reveal that by 2030, the more than 70 million Baby Boomers living in the U.S. will be age 65 or older.

Many of them won’t have enough funds to pay for their care needs as they age.

More than 11 million middle-income seniors aged 75 and older may not be able to pay for assisted living and are also unlikely to qualify for Medicaid to pay for their long-term care a decade from now, according to an August report from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

Even if those seniors sold their homes, 39% still would not have the resources to pay those annual costs. According to the NORC study, the average cost of private assisted living and medical care will be about $65,000 in 10 years.

I recently received an email from a resident at a senior living community who expressed frustration about the rapidly increasing cost of care. The resident, who lives at Brookdale Chambrel in Roswell asked that I keep her identity private.

She said that monthly facility fees have increased each year for the last five years. Increases had been around 5% or less, but this year, the monthly increase was closer to 10%, leaving her with about $80 each month to cover any other expenses she may have.

“Everyone in here had a big jump,” she said, noting that she uses money from her pension and social security to pay for her room, food and care at the facility. She has also inherited money that could be used should the increases extend beyond what those sources of funding can cover, but that money won’t last forever.

“I can make it for a bit of time, but if I didn’t have that, I don’t know what I would do because all of the other senior communities are expensive,” she said.

For 2022, the median percentage increase in monthly fees at primarily nonprofit facilities across the U.S. for all levels of care (independent living, assisted, and skilled nursing) was nearly 4.5%. That is significantly higher than the typical 3% increase of previous years, according to a September survey from Ziegler.

But most senior communities are for-profit, including Brookdale, the largest operator of senior housing in the country. Continued impacts from the pandemic coupled with inflation have resulted in increasing costs, said industry experts.

“Brookdale communities have incurred substantial increased costs in many areas of our business,” wrote company spokesman Taylor Ellis in an emailed response to my questions. “We are committed to minimizing the effects of these increased costs and expenses — wages, utilities, insurance, supplies and food and COVID-19 expenses — on our residents.”

Ellis said they are also trying to attract and retain the best workers at a time when the overall demand for workers is greater than the number of people available to fill the positions. In addition, the company is making ongoing investments in community maintenance, comfort, appearance and operational systems.

Rate increases occur each January with advance notice to residents. The rate of the increase varies from state to state and community to community. The level of care required by any given resident is another factor, Ellis said.

The resident who reached out to me said she would like to find a facility that only offers an apartment and meals without all of the other frills that can drive up costs.

“I can’t call other senior communities and find out what their prices are because they won’t tell you,” she said referring to the practice that facilities have of not discussing pricing upfront.

Tim Hadley, CEO of Executive Home Care, said there are options for seniors who have exhausted their resources for facility care. “We have seen that the client relocates to live with the adult son or daughter or they move to a less expensive facility,” he said.

One of the company’s brands, Assisted Living Locators, helps clients find affordable options or more affordable scenarios such as moving to a less-expensive room or safely modifying care needs.

Even seniors who are not living in senior living communities are finding their budgets stretched thin.

After applying for assistance from the Senior SNAP food program, Billye Cannon was eligible for only $0.65 per day. The 86-year old Rome resident, who lives on a fixed income, said at the very least, seniors should be allotted a base amount of $200 per month.

“It’s not nearly enough but it’s a step in the right direction,” Cannon said. “Why should seniors have to beg for life’s bare necessities?”

Cannon’s question is one we need to address as the population grows increasingly older.

Hadley encourages older residents and their supporters to be aware of all living options, enroll and participate in PACE and Medicaid programs, and to lobby for additional benefits and expanded coverage of services via Medicare and Medicaid.

The resident at Brookdale said if needed, she could move in with a family member but she would rather not.

“They are trying to save for their own retirement,” she said.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.