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Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

Utah needs more services for its older population. How to pay for them is the question

Jason Mendenhall with Utah Senior Care Advisors sits at The Ridge Cottonwood assisted living facility, July 19, 2023. Mendenhall says the number one issue he sees with his clients is how to pay for assisted living and additional care services.
Sean Higgins
Jason Mendenhall with Utah Senior Care Advisors sits at The Ridge Cottonwood assisted living facility, July 19, 2023. Mendenhall says the number one issue he sees with his clients is how to pay for assisted living and additional care services.

As Utah faces a growing population of older people, the state will need to keep up with changing community needs, like access to housing and assisted care. But there's another piece to that puzzle: money.

As people age and become less physically capable, services like reliable transportation and daily care become even more important.

Officials say the good news is that many older Utahns are healthy and planning ahead for their retirement years. But as the over-65 population grows, so does the number of people who aren’t so lucky.

“It's a relatively small piece of the pie,” said Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services Director Nels Holmgren. “But as that pie keeps expanding, that piece of the pie is growing as well.”

The Division of Aging and Adult Services provides support like health and wellness programs, legal assistance and adult protective services to about 125,000 individuals a year. As more and more Utahns grow older, that simply means more people will need to access those resources.

“We've seen real growth in that area,” said Holmgren. Partly I think we've got better reporting. Partly there are just more seniors out there.”

All of those programs require money and manpower. State and local agencies are short both of those.

“I know the people who fund these services,” said Holmgren. “I’m sure they get tired of every great effort out there saying ‘we need more money.’ But the reality is we’re serving more people with costs that are higher and we need more funding.”

To start, the division is looking to hire nine more frontline employees, and there is an additional need at the county level, which is where the majority of the state’s services are actually administered.

It’s not just the state that could be facing a money shortfall. Older Utahns themselves may not have enough to cover housing and care costs as they age.

Assisted living costs vary, but most people can expect to spend in the neighborhood of $2,500 to $6,000 per month or more, depending on how much care they need. Jason Mendenhall, founder of Utah Senior Care Advisors, also pointed out there are more common concerns that come into play as well.

”A person wants to be in their home, they raised their family in the home but they want to maintain their independence and they might just make a little bit too much money to qualify [for financial aid].”

Mendenhall’s family has been in the assisted living industry for over 40 years. After selling the family-owned facilities seven years ago, he founded Utah Senior Care Advisors and now works as a consultant to people transitioning into assisted living.

“What I primarily do is I sit down with families or clients, seniors in their homes and figure out what their needs are and then try and line them up with the best options,” he said.

The number one issue Mendenhall sees is money. While there is financial assistance available to veterans, Mendenhall said people looking to take advantage of Medicaid programs like the New Choices Waiver, which is aimed at people living in long-term care facilities, are in for a lengthy process. There’s also no guarantee that a facility will accept that payment.

For a lot of his clients, the price tag of assisted living is simply out of reach.

“Families call me and they say, ‘You know, my, my dad's living in my basement. He needs more care than I can provide. He needs help with his meds. He only takes in $1,400 a month with Social Security. What can I do to get my dad the help he needs?’” he said. “Every day I have a sad story and people breaking down saying, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’”

For families that don’t qualify for benefits, the options are limited.

“The only other way to get on is to fall and hurt yourself,” said Mendenhall. “Folks do have to have to almost be in a vulnerable position to be at home and fall in order to get into a community and hopefully qualify for that waiver.”

Data from the 2020 census show that less than half of working-age Americans have any retirement savings at all. For baby boomers now entering the 65 and older cohort, it’s slightly better, but not by much.

Even with financial challenges ahead, Holmgren thinks Utah has an opportunity to set the stage for how it prioritizes aging services in the coming years.

”I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that these are independent adults who have lived amazing lives, had amazing, amazing careers, raised families, done all sorts of things,” he said. “And they're very capable people. And we want to be able to provide them the tools to continue to do that for as long as we can.”

The Division of Aging and Adult Services received $1.5 million in one-time funding this year to expand its Meals on Wheels program and meals served in senior centers across the state. More funding could be available in the future, but the division has to compete with every other state-funded program for a limited amount of money in the state budget.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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