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Family Caregivers: How the Federal Government May Be Able to Help You

Federal Programs You Can Tap for Your Elderly Parents

Here are some federal programs you can tap for your elderly parents.

En español | If you're overwhelmed caring for a parent or spouse, Uncle Sam may be able to give you a hand.

A range of programs and supports has been developed in the last 16 years, including the federal Administration for Community Living (ACL), which combined the Administration on Aging and several programs that help people with disabilities. It's one of many federal agencies working to assist family caregivers.


"Over the years, the federal government has made great strides in understanding the importance of supporting family caregivers," says Greg Link, director of the ACL's Office of Supportive and Caregiver Services.

However, the assistance isn't in the form of cash.

"Most people come in and say, 'My dad needs services. What can you pay for?' " says Susan Long, director of the Knoxville-Knox County Office on Aging in Tennessee. "I say, 'You're going to be shocked, but there are not many services where you don't have to pay for something out of pocket.'"

Even if your parent is ineligible for financial aid, though, don't overlook the wide array of federal agencies that offer support as well as reliable and useful information.

Here is a primer on federal programs you may be able to tap as a caregiver.

Before you go online or call, start a file with documents about your parent or spouse's health, finances, work history and military service. Check out www.benefits.gov — searchable by state, category or agency — to find which benefits your loved one qualifies for. Another good resource is the National Council on Aging's BenefitsCheckUp , which asks four questions to help you find benefits. The interactive Eldercare Locator will help connect you with local services specifically for older people, such as transportation, housing and financial aid. If you prefer the human touch, call 800-677-1116.

Medicare

Medicare does not pay family caregivers. If your loved one is 65 or older, he or she probably has health coverage through Medicare, which means that you, as the caregiver and advocate, need to know how Medicare works. To sort out Part A (hospital), Part B (medical insurance), Part C (Medicare Advantage plans) and Part D (prescription drugs) — and learn a lot more — go to www.medicare.gov.

You'll find sections to demystify billing terms and explain what procedures are covered, what financial benefits may be available, how to find caregiver support services, and how to care for someone with a disability or chronic condition, among other topics. Note that the Medicare recipient needs to fill out a form allowing Medicare to communicate and share personal information with the family caregiver.

Be aware that your elderly parent may qualify for Extra Help with Medicare prescription drug costs through Social Security.

Social Security

Social Security does not provide benefits to take care of elderly parents. If your parent has limited resources and is 65 or older or blind or disabled, she may qualify for Supplemental Security Income.

If you are a caregiver near retirement age, you may consider claiming Social Security. Be aware that deciding when to claim benefits is crucial to future income. It's "the most important financial decision [most Americans] will ever make," says Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "Most Americans don't realize the important implications of choosing one age versus another."

Department of Veterans Affairs

The VA has several programs that help low-income veterans as well as family caregivers. A few:

Aid and Attendance pays a veteran who needs help with activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating and dressing. The veteran must qualify for a needs-based VA pension and have served at least 90 days active duty and one day in wartime. A surviving spouse of a veteran may also qualify.

Housebound is a separate program for VA pension-eligible vets who need help ambulating outside the home.

Veteran-Directed Home- and Community-Based Services gives veterans of all ages who otherwise would be in nursing homes the power to tailor their long-term care at home and to hire family members as caregivers. Higher-income vets may be subject to a copayment. This program is new and available only in certain locations.

Veterans who were severely injured or suffered mental health issues incurred or aggravated in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, and who meet other requirements may receive benefits through the Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program. A spouse, family member or someone who lives with the veteran full time may be the caregiver and can be paid to provide care.

Click on www.caregiver.va.gov or call the VA Caregiver Support Line at 855-260-3274.

Medicaid

The program provides health care for low-income Americans and is the nation's largest payer of nursing homes and services that help one live independently in the home and community. It is jointly funded by the federal government and the states and run by the states within federal guidelines. To be eligible for Medicaid for these services, you must meet certain financial and other eligibility criteria that vary by state.

If your parent is eligible for Medicaid, check whether your state has a program that allows family members to be paid as family caregivers. These participant-directed care programs are aimed at keeping people independent and in their own homes.

Note: When you hit roadblocks, members of Congress have staff assigned to help constituents cut through bureaucratic red tape. Contact the member's office by phone or email. Not sure who your members of Congress are? Go to www.senate.gov and enter your state at the Find Your Senators link. On www.house.gov, enter your ZIP code at Find Your Representative.

Marsha Mercer is a Washington, D.C.,-based journalist.

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