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Oregon Project Independence Helps Elders Stay In Their Homes

Bill McLean/JPR

For many elderly people, having to move into a nursing home is frightening and traumatic. It’s also very expensive, and taxpayers usually end up footing a lot of the bill. 

A groundbreaking program that originated in Oregon is helping many people stay in their homes longer, enhancing the quality of their lives and reducing the need for nursing home care.

Cecil Michael is 96 years old.  He still lives in his own home, and he has no plans to leave. Only, he can’t do all the things he used to. Enter... the caregiver.

Sharon: “My name is Sharon. I’m a caregiver for Addus Healthcare. I do whatever has to be done for a client, whether it be personal care, housekeeping, shopping, taking to the doctor.”

Sharon’s tab ... in Cecil’s case ... is picked up by Oregon taxpayers through a program called Oregon Project Independence, or OPI.

Sharon: “I come by every Friday. Yeah, for three hours.”

It’s not much, but it’s just enough for Cecil to remain self-sufficient. State Senator Alan Bates of Ashland says OPI currently serves about 2,000 citizens for an average cost of around $400 a month each.

Alan Bates: “It’s amazing how a little money up front like that prevents them from moving into very expensive settings.  A nursing home can cost $5- to $10,000 a month, most of which ends up being paid by the state. And for a little investment up front, we give these people a much better life, at a much lower cost, in a much more humane way.”

Bates says Oregon’s developed a reputation among other states ... even some other countries ... for programs dating back to the 1970s, encouraging our elders to be independent until they really need a nursing home’s more comprehensive, and expensive, care.

Alan Bates: “We are now closing nursing homes in this state. We have not built any new ones for about 25 years.”

Senior Services Director Dave Toler with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments says OPI challenges some long-standing assumptions about when ... or even whether ... aging people must leave their home.

Dave Toler: “It was just, ‘Medicaid? Okay. Nursing home, here you go.’ And then we said, ‘You know what? In Oregon we do things different.’”

Toler says moving into a nursing home is often stressful and incredibly sad for the families involved, and most people really just want a little help with routine tasks they can’t do any more.

Dave Toler: “It’s not very often, in the political and public policy world, where what people want the most can also save the government a tremendous amount of money.”

Sharon takes Cecil’s grocery list for the week. He says without her help he could be dependent on Medicaid for a small room in a nursing home, with little space for his things.

Cecil Michael: “I’m staying away from that as long as I can. I’d rather live in my house and die in my house than I would anywhere else.”

About 15 years ago Cecil suffered some debilitating health problems. His children have helped a lot, but they have their own aging issues.

Senator Bates says nursing homes are appropriate for some ... dementia patients, for example. But, he adds, with just a little help most older people can stay at home. The biennial budget for OPI is about $10  to $15 million.

Alan Bates: “Sometimes a little more, a little less. We’ve had to cut the program sometimes. In the recession we cut it back one time to 7- or 8 million, but we realize you make those kind of cuts in the short run, you pay for it in the long run.”

Bates says preserving our elders’ dignity and self-reliance is the right thing to do. Meanwhile, Cecil just wants to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

Cecil Michael: “My dad and mother, they used to have a house right over here. Why, they lived and died in that house, both of them, and that’s just what I want to do.” 

Maybe not anytime soon, Cecil says, but until then he depends on no one unless he has to.