by Ben Swenson
When it comes to health care, Americans are increasingly choosing the home over the hospital. Spending on the home health care industry is expected to increase by about 5.5 percent annually for the foreseeable future, thanks in large part to the roughly 10,000 baby boomers who turn 65 every day.
Home health care benefits both patients and the medical community that treats them. Individuals and their families who require the services are able to avoid the challenge and expense of leaving their residence. And sending medical professionals to patients’ homes frees up limited space in a clinical facility.
Senior citizens, who tend to have more chronic conditions and undergo more medical procedures, rely most heavily on home health care. Nationwide, some 12,200 agencies provide services for patients, 82 percent of whom are 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The major health care systems in Hampton Roads all have a robust home health divisions and numerous private, for-profit agencies provide services as well. A physician prescribes in-home care on a case-by-case basis, and a broad swath of medical professionals provides assistance.
In many cases, home health care is finite, and providers end care once patients have recovered. But some treatments, often for chronic conditions, continue indefinitely.
Eventually many seniors’ needs become so acute that home health care agencies won’t suffice. In the past, a nursing home might have been the next step, but thanks to a nationwide program that helps seniors stay in their homes and communities, there is another option.
The Programs for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, or PACE, offers an alternative for people age 55 and older who are eligible for a nursing home, but would prefer to remain in their own home.
Merinda Ford, program director for Sentara PACE, which serves communities on Hampton Roads’ Southside, says that the program is designed to provide comprehensive medical and social interventions “across the continuum of care.”
Ford says that PACE becomes both the insurer and provider for participants, supplanting costs normally borne by Medicare and Medicaid and saving taxpayers money. But more importantly, PACE offers close attention at a time when seniors are especially vulnerable to benign neglect and social isolation.
An interdisciplinary team of medical professionals design a care plan with participants and their family to ensure that all needs are met. Sentara PACE provides a
comprehensive slate of services that help keep seniors healthy without being institutionalized. That starts with personal care that enrollees need at home, but the program also provides transportation to medical appointments and rehabilitation, as well as filling and delivery of prescriptions.
Drivers pick them up and bring them to one of the two Sentara PACE centers – Norfolk or Portsmouth – where they receive meals and participate in a daylong schedule in activities. When a Sentara PACE participant does eventually require intense, specialized services, such as hospitalization or end-of-life care, their PACE team stays with them, says Ford.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the program to modify some operations, Ford says, but Sentara PACE is still accepting new enrollees, and she expects normal operations to resume once it is safe and prudent to do so.
Ford is also president of the Virginia PACE Alliance, a professional association linking the commonwealth’s PACE programs. Virginia has 10 other PACE programs beside Sentara’s, all of which serve seniors from specific jurisdictions.
The program has been a lifesaver for participants and their families. One 97-year-old enrollee who has participated in Sentara PACE for nine years told Ford that she had worked all her life to build the home she lives in by herself and that she wants to remain there indefinitely, a prospect that’s only possible through PACE. Caregivers often tell Ford that working full time and tending to the needs of their own children does not allow them to devote the time to properly care for their elderly loved one. PACE fills that gap.
As the population of older Americans grow, Ford says that society is obligated to provide compassionate care that shows them the respect they deserve. “All of them have contributed to society,” she says. “The PACE program reminds them that they are still an important and valued part the community.”