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Respite Care Services Face Cutback

Without the help, some caregivers say family members will have to move to institutional care

Georgia's HCBS is facing major budget reduction

Photo by Kendrick Brinson/LUCEO

A budget shortfall may reduce respite services for caregivers of frail or ill relatives and friends. One of them is Etta Spearman, left, of Gray, who cares for her mother, Lola Brantley, of Macon.

At 91, Lola Brantley lives alone in her home in Macon. She flat out rejects the idea of moving to a nursing home, even though she's frail and has limited mobility. Her daughter, Etta Spearman, is able to honor Brantley's wishes because of assistance from a state program that gives caregivers a breather.

Twice a week, an aide paid through Georgia's Home and Community Based Services' respite care program visits Brantley for two hours so Spearman, who lives 15 minutes away in Gray, can run errands or do other chores without worrying about her mother.

See also: A break for the caregiver.

"This little bit helps me so much," Spearman, 68, said. "Oh, how thankful we are for this program."

The respite care program, which gives about 1,500 Georgians a break from tending to ill or frail kin or friends, faces a 30 percent budget cut when the legislature meets early this year.

The proposed cut of $405,560 to the respite care program's $1.4 million budget would eliminate 40,556 hours of care, Lynn Vellinga, chief financial officer of the Department of Human Services, told the agency's board in August.

Gov. Nathan Deal, R, proposed a 2 percent cut in all state departments during the first half of this year to address a budget shortfall. Officials in the Department of Human Services proposed meeting that target, in part, with a 30 percent cut to the respite care budget.

That means if someone got respite care assistance three times a week, it could be cut to two times, said Linda Parrott, manager of operations for Cobb County Senior Services. Parrott said that's how her agency handled service reductions in past state budget cutbacks.

She said other county or regional agencies that oversee the respite care program could have another approach, such as moving money from another program into the respite care budget.

Breather for caregivers

Like others who care for older relatives, Spearman said she'd have to move her mother to a nursing home if she couldn't rely on respite care, and "that's the last place I ever want to be or put my mom."

The respite care program provides three levels of assistance, depending on the person's need, from light housekeeping to some nursing services.

The goal is to give caregivers a break from the exhausting demands of tending to a physically or mentally frail family member or friend, so the person can remain at home as long as possible.

Caregivers "are desperate to keep their loved one in their home," said Kathy Floyd, AARP Georgia legislative director. "These are vulnerable people. We should not balance the budget at their expense."

AARP Georgia has made restoring the respite care budget a priority on its legislative agenda.

Gubernatorial spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said Deal knows the program is crucial, but the state is coping with a stricken economy.

But advocates for respite care and other programs that help older people remain in their homes point out that the alternative — institutional care — is far more costly than services provided by the respite program.

In Georgia, a semiprivate room in a nursing home costs about $58,000 a year; full-time in-home services cost roughly $38,900 annually.

AARP Georgia and other groups will rally at the Capitol on Jan. 26 to urge lawmakers to support issues that affect older Georgians, including funding for the respite care program.

In addition, AARP members will join in the Three Weeks at the Capitol events in February and March to make sure lawmakers are aware of AARP's legislative priorities.

For more information or to participate in efforts to restore respite care funding, call 1-866-295-7281 toll-free or email aarpga@aarp.org.

You may also like: One caregiver's story. >>

Ed Van Herik is a writer living in Kennesaw, Ga.

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