Betty Caldwell and her mother faced a painful dilemma. Caldwell, 64, had developed a heart condition that left her so exhausted she felt barely able to make the daily trip to her mother's nearby apartment in Kingsport.
Her mother, Elsie King, 90, a widow for almost 60 years, had raised three children on her own while working in a factory nearly all her adult life, and was fiercely independent. But she'd come to rely on her only daughter for help with meals, medications, cleaning and errands.
"We had gotten to this very difficult point," Caldwell said. "I was sick. My mom needs care, but she's not ready for a nursing home where she would be in a bed in a room."
Choices represents an overhaul of how the state responds to the needs of older or physically disabled residents needing daily care. For years, Tennessee ranked at or next to the bottom among the states in providing home- and community-based services.
During the program's first nine months, enrollment in home- and community-based services jumped from 18 to 25 percent, which is about 7,000 people.
That includes 256 who went directly from nursing homes to home care. The program allows up to 9,500 people to be enrolled at any time.
The program began in Middle Tennessee last March and went statewide in August.
The Choices program provides a broad menu of services to those who would otherwise qualify for nursing home care based on their income and health, but who can safely live in their own homes. Services include installing wheelchair ramps and arm rails, providing in-home health care, bathing services, transportation, homemaker services, and, in certain cases, helping pay the monthly bills at assisted living facilities.
At-home services in the Choices program cannot exceed the average cost of nursing home care. So far, the average participant costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per year compared with the average annual cost of nursing home care, about $52,000, said Steve Witt, director of the Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability, based in Chattanooga.
"If you can make it possible for people to stay at home — which is what most people want — it's better for the individual, the family and the taxpayer," Witt said.
Advocates are hoping to build on the early success of the program by adding other options — such as adult residential homes for people unable to live alone — while preparing to defend the program from any potential cutbacks.
"It's a very difficult time for federal and state budgets, and we'll be working to ensure there's not a disproportionate share of cuts just as more people need these services," said Rebecca Kelly, AARP Tennessee state director.