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Long-Term Care: Are You Prepared?

If you're a woman, probably not — even though you're more likely to need it than your husband

Two women

— Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum

The majority of boomer women are unaware of what their long-term care needs will be, how much they will cost or how they will pay for them, according to a new AARP poll.

Consider, too, that women generally outlive their husbands by five years and often deplete their assets caring for their own parents or spouses. This information gap raises the odds that women won't be financially prepared to live out their final years as they'd wish.

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The results of the AARP study "Planning for Long-Term Care: A Survey of Midlife and Older Women" indicate that women are in dire need of education on long-term care planning, says Alyson Burns, director of AARP's Long-Term Care Awareness Campaign.

"We want women to realize that they will likely rely on friends, family and personal savings to pay the national average of $74,000 a year for private nursing home care," says Burns. "An alarmingly high number of women do not know that a significant chunk of their retirement savings we'll be put toward paying for long-term care."

An all-too-common misperception

Six in 10 women have no plan in place for how they will pay for long-term care, and one in three erroneously believes that Medicare will cover the cost, according to the poll, which this summer surveyed 500 women ages 45 to 64. A big part of the problem is that long-term care is still widely misunderstood, Burns says.

Only 40 percent of women surveyed know that long-term care involves more than just assisted living or nursing home facility fees or the cost of a home health aide. In reality, long-term care also applies to adapting your home to meet your needs as you age, learning your health history and adopting healthy habits to preserve your health and informing loved ones about your end-of-life wishes.

"This is an important issue for women because women are the biggest users of long-term care," says Burns. "But there is a disconnect between what women want and what they are planning for."

Family stress often motivates planning

Like many women who have a long-term care plan, Eileen Brock, 56, of Palm Bay, Fla., devised hers after her mother died suddenly, leaving her and her siblings to care for her father with Parkinson's disease. He wanted to live independently, but to do so the family had to hire round-the-clock home health aides at an average of $19 an hour. Her father also needed an elevator chair, which had to be installed in order for him to get up and down the stairs. All of this had to be done while Brock's father waited, very impatiently, in a nursing home. He had no long-term care insurance, so by the time he passed away, five years after his wife died, all of his retirement savings had been depleted.

"It was not a pleasant pow-wow that my brother, sister and I had when we had to decide on care for my father," says Brock. "If these decisions had been made ahead of time, and thought out by our parents, there would have been less strife and fewer bad feelings between the siblings. I never want my daughters to go through that."

Brock purchased long-term care insurance, which would help pay for institutional or in-home care for herself and her husband. They then drafted a will, spelling out exactly what medical treatments they want or would refuse and establishing power of attorney. During a recent home remodel, the Brocks moved the master bedroom to the first floor and installed wide doorways that could accommodate a wheelchair if necessary. She told her daughters that if she ever can't live on her own anymore, she wants to go into assisted living and not move in with them.

"I know a lot of people say, 'Well the state will take care of me.' But no, I don't want to go to a snake pit, or some of the less-pleasant [nursing homes]," Brock says. "I want to be the one who chooses and I want to be able to afford it."

Lack of long-term planning

Most Americans want to live long lives — an average of 92 years, according to a separate study by Genworth Financial Companies and Age Wave. But the Genworth survey showed that people are five times more frightened of becoming a burden on a loved one than of dying itself. And on average, women need long-term care for 3.7 years, compared with only 2.2 years for men, according to a study in the journal Inquiry.

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