Rising senior living costs limit long-term care options for some

By Eva Vigh | 8:00 am Dec. 11, 2018 CST
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Since last year, Spring resident Monica Padgett said she has struggled to find affordable housing for her 80-year-old grandmother and mentally disabled uncle. The pair live in a senior living complex, but they need a cheaper facility that still provides the same level of care, Padgett said.

“When we started looking around for assisted living facilities in the area so [my grandmother]could live close by, it was impossible to find anything in her price range,” Padgett said. “It seems like there’s no options for them.”

Across Harris County, senior living costs have trended upward in recent years largely due to higher-end consumers demanding more amenities, said Gregory Shelley, director of the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program at Cizik School of Nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. In Harris County, assisted living facilities can cost as much as $8,000 a month depending on the level of service and features, he said.

Ombudsmen advocate to improve the quality of life for residents in long-term care and work with consumers to find affordable housing.

“If money is a difficulty, there [are]still some viable options for folks,” Shelley said.

Meanwhile advocates and senior living facilities in Spring and Klein are working to offer more affordable rates and services while still accounting for senior needs, including rising medical costs and the demand for new services, such as technology classes.

“Across the board … [the cost for senior living has]been trending upward. It’s been coinciding with the cost of living. I don’t think it’s been anything drastic,” said David Chandler, executive director of Wood Glen Court Assisted Living on Cypresswood Drive. “Residents are still going to save a lot of money coming in versus staying at home, falling and injuring themselves.”

Growing needs
The elderly population in Harris County has been growing, and its needs range from financial assistance to memory care. From 2010 to 2016 the number of residents ages 65 and older in the nine ZIP codes that comprise Spring and Klein rose from 27,844 to 37,688—a 35 percent increase—according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As of November, bills filed for the 2019 state legislative session affecting senior care include House Bill 288, which would increase the minimum monthly personal allowance, or money that Medicaid recipients may retain from their personal income, of an individual in a long-term care; and HB 284, which would require nursing homes to provide a written notice of whether it is certified in Alzheimer’s care.

Sam Harless, Texas House District 126 representative-elect, said he plans to support the needs of the growing elderly population, such as ensuring facility regulations are upheld.

“There’s a huge need for assisted living facilities … Our senior population is growing every single day out here. It’s affected a lot of our businesses in the community,” Harless said.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services lists 36 assisted living facilities and 56 home health care agencies in the nine ZIP codes that comprise Spring and Klein. However, the area lacks nursing homes for Alzheimer’s and dementia care as well as ones that accept Medicaid-pending patients, or senior who have applied for Medicaid and are awaiting a decision, Shelley said.

In all of Harris County, Shelley said there are only three nursing homes with certified Alzheimer’s care units. One of them—Pathways Memory Care on Cypress Grove Meadows Drive—is in the Spring and Klein area.

The facility has a limited number of Medicaid-licensed beds, which can be an issue if a patient exhausts his or her private pay funds, said Angela Norris, senior vice president of business development at Stonegate Senior Living, which manages Pathways.

“It’s a challenge for folks. You want to make sure when you are admitting someone that they are able to stay there for the duration of the time they need care,” she said.

Lower-income options
Across the county the cost for senior living facilities has been increasing.

“The rough averages for assisted living locally have gone from about $3,000 a month in 2010 to $3,500 today,” Shelley said. “For nursing homes, it has moved from about $4,500 to $5,000 [a month].”

Several independent living options in Spring and Klein exist for seniors with lower incomes, including Louetta Village Apartments on Louetta Road. The affordable housing offers 116 units for seniors. To qualify for reduced rent, households must earn less than 60 percent of the area median income, according to Affordable Housing Online, which lists low-income apartments by ZIP code or city. The median income in Spring and Klein is $76,211, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Meanwhile some assisted living facilities in the area are trimming costs for tenants by including more services in their room and board fees, said Alane Roberts, elder care advisor for Assisted Living Locators Northwest Houston. The organization provides guidance on finding homes for the elderly.

“Most people need … medication management, and so a lot of places are starting to include that and maybe one or two additional very basic type services, [such as]help getting out of bed or help with dressing,” Roberts said.

Another cost-saving option is unlicensed residential care homes, which are not regulated by the state, Roberts said. The average monthly cost for a shared room in Spring and Klein is about $2,000, while a shared room in a licensed home can cost up to $3,500.

“They serve a very necessary market in the elder care space because there’s just a staggering amount of people that are aging that have little to no savings,” she said.

According to a representative from Patrick J. Wehrly Office, a financial planner on Spring Cypress Road, the average 65-year-old should have $650,000 in savings and $15,000 in emergency funds. However, the average 65-year-old in the Greater Houston area has only $50,000 and no emergency funds, the representative said in an email.

New services
Facilities in Spring and Klein are facing their own challenges, including recurring flood issues and increased demand for more services. Hurricane Harvey flooded many facilities along Cypresswood Drive—including Autumn Leaves of Cypresswood, Sycamore Creek Ranch and Atria Cypresswood. But following approval of the $2.5 billion Harris County Flood Control District bond in August, elected officials and local facility owners said they hope the worst flood events are over.

“Unfortunately it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to build assisted living close to Cypress Creek,” Harless said. “I am confident that the flood bond that passed will alleviate the flooding.”

In October, Autumn Leaves of Cypresswood, an assisted living memory community, reopened its renovated facility. The facility took on nearly 3 feet of water and had to evacuate its residents to its sister community, Autumn Leaves of Cy-Fair, said Michael Tanner, regional director of operations at Autumn Leaves.

“In the beginning it was hard. We had over 60 residents in one community,” Tanner said.

Tanner said the emergency evacuation plan was successful, but the facility will have alternate evacuation routes planned in the future in case its original route is flooded.

Meanwhile Wood Glen Court Assisted Living on Cypresswood Drive, which did not flood, is working to accommodate for its residents’ growing health care needs. Tenants are increasingly having more medically complex cases, such as congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s or diabetes, Chandler said. In November, the facility increased its nursing staff from five to seven days, he said.

Alongside rising medical needs, seniors are generally requesting more amenities, Chandler said. Six months ago Wood Glen Court unrolled a weekly technology class based on resident requests that teaches basic tech skills, such as how to use a cell phone.

Such services would have been rare a few years ago, but now that seniors are using email and social media to communicate and remain active politically, it is becoming more of a commodity, Chandler said.

“Our residents are active on social media; they go on Facebook,” he said. “During this recent election I saw [residents]using technology to engage with some of the people running for office.”