ANDERSON — In the nearly two years they’ve known each other, Virginia Close and Nancy Buckner have become fast friends. They spend at least 40 hours a week together, telling stories, laughing, sharing meals and watching television at the home of Close’s son and daughter-in-law.

Buckner, 78, also runs errands and organizes medications for Close, 94.

“I’m a senior citizen taking care of a senior citizen,” Buckner said with a smile. “We have a ball together. She has to get her fingernails done, her toenails done … I call her high maintenance, but in a good way. We’ve had a lot of fun together.”

Situations like Close’s are becoming more commonplace as a growing population of aging Americans choose, in increasing numbers, to receive long-term care at home. According to a 2016 study by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 12,200 home health agencies provided services to people in their homes or the homes of a relative. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, an estimated 4.5 million people received care at home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s no doubt you see people living longer and healthier lives with their family members as caretakers,” said Robby Tompkins, director of development at LifeStream Services, an aging and disability resource center for east central Indiana that works with local providers to provide in-home care for clients in 12 counties, including Madison.

The agency served more than 5,000 people in Madison County last year, a 40% increase from the year before.

“When I see the numbers increasing, I get a sense that rising costs in nursing homes is a factor,” Tompkins said, “but we also have a lot of people in those rural settings,” which can limit long-term care options."

“A lot of it is independence,” says Steve Leach, a client care coordinator for Home Instead, an international in-home care agency with approximately 650 locations in Canada and the U.S., including offices in Muncie and Pendleton. “We want to maintain our independence as we get older and transition into our older years. I think that’s the key thing. The struggles that we have as we do get older, maybe it is getting in and out of the bathtub or maybe it is, 'I don’t feel comfortable driving anymore, but I still want to stay at home.'”

Undoubtedly, another factor is cost. According to a 2018 survey by Genworth Financial, a Virginia-based firm offering long-term care insurance, the median cost for an in-home health aide working 40 hours a week was $4,195 a month. That’s less than half the cost of a private room at a nursing home, according to the survey. In Indiana, the price tags were roughly the same. And while most of the cost of home care is usually paid directly by patients or their families, Medicare Advantage benefits have recently been expanded to include services that are considered “non-skilled,” such as help with bathing and dressing and other light household tasks.

As even more Americans age into their retirement years and beyond, agencies providing home care are already beginning to see a dearth of qualified workers for positions like Buckner’s.

“There is a shortage of caregivers nationwide, as well as locally,” Leach said, “but that does not hinder our process in hiring the best out there. So as long as we do that due diligence on the background investigations, drug testing, things that will make a family feel more comfortable having strangers in their home, then it’s worthwhile. It’s worth it.”

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.

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