By MILILANI TRASK
Originally published March 3, 2017 by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. Read it there.

It is good news that the kupuna caregivers assistance bill — Senate Bill 534/House Bill 607 — has made it through the budget committees of the state Senate and House.

This session, policymakers will have the opportunity to do something important for Hawaii’s seniors, the families who care for them and the burgeoning costs our state must assume for the long-term care needs of the aging baby boomer population advancing to retirement.

In Hawaii, our local culture is multiethnic and many continue to live by traditional values that favor keeping our kupuna at home so they can age in place as part of the extended family. For many generations, this has been the plan for elder care in Hawaii across all cultures.

No one could have known or foreseen the radical changes our state would encounter as time passed. No one would have thought that Hawaii would become the most expensive state in the union, that the average cost of a 1,200-square-foot pre-fab home would exceed $750,000 and the cost for electricity, food and fuel would be among the highest in the nation. But this is the reality.

Many families are living in quiet desperation, trying to provide at-home care for seniors who are unable to live independently because of high costs, illness or declining capacity. Increasingly, families are faced with the reality that a wage earner will have to give up employment to care for a spouse, parents and/or grandparents. This increases the financial burden of the family while decreasing the income of the family.

In most cases, the elderly who need care are residents who have lived and worked their entire lives in Hawaii. They built the Hawaii we have today. They believed that their retirement income would be sufficient to provide a safety net for them in their aging years, and that their children and grandchildren would be able to care for them at home until they passed. But the reality has been sobering.

Hawaii has the greatest longevity in the United States. That is a cruel blessing when even middle-class families cannot meet the cost of aging.

Many years ago, when we learned of our mother’s diagnosis of dementia, our family was faced with this same dilemma. She did not have long-term care insurance and her retirement from the DOE system as a second-grade teacher did not provide enough financial support for her care. We were fortunate that four of her six children could contribute monthly to provide home care with our younger sister in Hilo. Most local families do not have the option of having several children share costs for their aging kupuna.

The state predicts that by 2030, 30 percent of Hawaii residents will be seniors and more than 100,000 elderly Hawaii residents will be living below the federal poverty level.

For many seniors, the only viable option is to remain at home and be cared for by their family. This would be the least costly and most culturally appropriate option for our families. It also is best for our state which is facing shrinking tax revenues and diminishing employer contributions for its government workers.

In 2015, there were 247,000 unpaid family caregivers in Hawaii. On average, family caregivers are women age 62 who work full or part time. Because many are forced to leave the workforce prematurely or take a cut in hours, the net result is lost wages for the family and fewer years of Social Security credits earned by the care providers for their retirement.

This session, the kupuna caregivers assistance bill aims to provide respite to family caregivers by allowing them to access resources to pay trained caregivers to help with the care of loved ones at home. That will allow more working people to stay employed, protecting their own retirement income and at the same time providing peace of mind about their parent’s care. This bill is a big step in the right direction, and we should all urge our legislators to support this important proposal for seniors and their families.

You can track the bill by going to www.capitol.hawaii.gov and letting your legislators know they should support SB 534 and HB 607. We need to make our voices heard.

Mililani Trask is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.