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Pennsylvania Seniors Housing Wants Government Attention

Pennsylvania Seniors Housing Wants Government Attention

Pennsylvania, the second state admitted to the union, is also one of the oldest in terms of population age—but seniors housing providers there say the government isn’t doing enough to address the oncoming wave of elderly need.

Out of the state’s population of more than 12 million, the over-85-year-old sector is growing 10 times faster than the overall population. Pittsburgh, with about 300,000 residents, is the oldest city in the country, with 23.6 percent of its population over the age of 60, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Three of the state’s counties—Cambria, Schuylkill and Luzerne—are among the 25 oldest counties in the United States.

However, seniors housing owners, developers and lenders who handle Pennsylvania properties have recently protested the state government’s heavy focus on skilled nursing homes instead of doing more to prop up affordable housing or stay-at-home services. In early November, following the election of the state’s new governor, Tom Wolf, LeadingAge PA, an association of nonprofit seniors services whose members include more than 360 seniors housing providers, penned a congratulatory press release, and publicly requested that Wolf adjust focus on the plight of the state’s elderly residents.

“This problem is not going to go away,” says Ron Barth, CEO of LeadingAge. “We’re hoping the new governor takes heed.”

He says the state does contribute its share for Medicaid and Medicare funding for skilled nursing homes for seniors. However, Barth points out, the nursing home industry is in the midst of a rehabilitation itself, as seniors housing properties are more often used today for short-term stays specific to light injuries or hospital recoveries.

An older population means more seniors who are isolated, with no care assistance, Barth says. Pennsylvania currently provides too little funding for low-income residents in assisted living, and only allows supplemental funding for low-income residents in personal care at $35 per day, he says. This is mere pocket change compared to the roughly $20,000 per year needed for seniors  home care services, the $42,000 needed by seniors for assisted living or the $105,000 per year for full-time stays at nursing homes in the state.

Specifically, Barth says his members request that the state provide at least the same funding or more for seniors services and housing as the state already does for nursing facilities. Just paying for more at-home services would save the state money, as elderly residents would be able to go back to living in their homes. Those in isolation could use assistance with affordable facilities, he says.

This sentiment was also the main point of a public letter to the media by Paul Winkler, president and CEO of Presbyterian SeniorCare, one of the largest affordable seniors housing companies in the country. In the letter, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Nov. 6, he said federal and state funding is too focused on the nursing home industry than seniors housing. Skilled nursing is twice as costly as assisted living in the long run, he said, and five times more expensive than in-home services. “It is long past tie for our state and federal officials to ensure that older adults at every income level can get the best care in the right setting,” Winkler said. (He declined to comment for this story.)

The state’s Department of Aging, which reports to the lame-duck governor Tom Corbett, declined to answer most of the questions for this story. State officials have touted a recent law signed by Gov. Corbett which establishes a Community Adult Respite Services Program to allow senior community centers, adult day programs and long-term care facilities to establish and offer a transitional program for older, independent adults. The law will take effect in April.

Drew Wilburne, a spokesman for the Department of Aging, says the state has worked to address the growing need for services and affordable housing, such as the creation of the Housing and Community Services division and pilot assistance programs in a handful of counties. “The division meets periodically and discusses various Pennsylvania housing needs,” he says. “In Blair County, the Department of Aging created a senior housing task force, which will identify housing needs and possible solutions for the county.”

Other Pennsylvania seniors housing developers agree that the need for more options will keep getting bigger over the next decade. Don Banzhof, vice president at Warfel Construction, says his company is working on eight seniors communities throughout the central and eastern portion of the state, with the new builds and renovations totaling about $85 million. The baby boomers, Banzhof says, are going to be the residents that the state must start planning for.

“Many of the retirement communities with whom we work have added services to assist seniors to stay in their homes as long as possible, but when this accommodation becomes untenable, the community welcomes the seniors into their facility,” he says. “Affordable seniors housing and memory care facilities are going to be in great demand in Pennsylvania.”


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