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Senior health care options change

Growing another year older may not seem like a big deal. Yet, seniors might start wondering how to prepare for the next year once Social Security checks start rolling in.

Growing another year older may not seem like a big deal. Yet, seniors might start wondering how to prepare for the next year once Social Security checks start rolling in.

The future of health care is an issue close at hand for the elderly, as well as for nursing homes and assisted living programs in Superior. According to St. Francis Nursing Home Administrator Gerald Hodges, seniors are already seeing changes in the type of care that will be provided down the line. Hodges said elderly care is gravitating more and more toward home-based models like assisted living.

"It's the trend nationwide. Everybody's doing it. It's so rewarding to rehab somebody and send them home that I really think it's worth it," he said.

The number of residents at St. Francis dwindled from around 180 patients 10 years ago to 130 this past year. Hodges said lack of funding and the arrival of other health care options like assisted living programs contributed to the decline.

"People don't really want to be in a nursing home and, if they are, they want to be there just a short period of time," Hodges said.

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Superior's Golden Living Center, formerly the Beverly Health Rehabilitation Center, sees the same attitudes in some of its residents.

"That was the stigmatism of nursing homes -- up at five and seven is breakfast for the first group. We've relaxed all that. It's much better for everyone -- staff included," said Golden Living Center's Executive Director Daniel Stephans.

In the last two years, it's undergone some remodeling and a change of ownership. The results of those changes add up to more of the comforts people experience in their own homes. For example, residents can choose what time they get out of bed and what they want to eat and what they want to do with their time. According to Center Activities Director Denise LaGraves, residents are happier with a place that feels a little more like home.

"We're trying to go from more of a medical model to more of a family and socialization model," LaGraves said. She said residents' surroundings have a big impact on their well-being. "If people are happy, they're more motivated, for example, to go to surgery and get better."

Hodges said a testament to the trend toward home-based care is the addition of 24 assisted living beds in the community. Assisted living is receiving more recognition as a result of its appeal among seniors, according to the nursing home administrator.

"The state regulations and state funding once only paid for nursing home care, where now they see the value of paying for assisted living," Hodges said.

As things are improving on one front, nursing homes still find challenges in attaining the necessary funds to care for their residents. The Golden Living Center makes efforts toward receiving reimbursements by talking with legislators.

"We go through political channels to at least channel the appropriate money back to long-term care to help meet the needs of our staff in providing that type of care," Stephans said.

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"The federal government has been, it's hard to say, somewhat conservative on their money. They haven't grown that as much as they could, especially in the last 10 years. But the state of Wisconsin has really under-funded nursing homes," said Hodges, who believes that's due in part to the state's desire to reduce the number of nursing home beds. He said nursing homes have gotten used to doing the same care with less. St. Francis began charging more for private-paying individuals who are residents at the nursing home. Hodges said it's one thing they do to keep up with the rising costs of health care in light of insufficient state and federal funds. He speculates in the future, universal health care will become a more likely possibility in light of the challenges facing the industry.

"I think without much doubt it's going to be here," Hodges said. "The current system just isn't working for anyone -- from providers to consumers. It's pretty complicated now. I don't know how you could make it much worse."

Among other concerns is the issue of whether there will be enough trained professionals to care for seniors in the future. Stephans said the Golden Living Center partners with universities and area schools concerning job placement.

"We could always use more licensed staff," he said.

Hodges said St. Francis feels the same.

"We can't remain as competitive with our licensed nurse salaries. The hospitals do pay more because they get reimbursed at a lot higher level."

Competition in wages may draw away staff, but both Stephans and Hodges are optimistic in finding qualified caregivers. LaGraves said they'll have to be qualified to keep up with baby boomers who will soon require their services.

"It's going to be a lot more activity. They're going to be very active. They're so busy with their lives right now, so they're going to want that."

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Hodges and Stephans said they can't say for sure what the future of senior care in Superior will hold.

"The thing is, we just keep abreast of changes in the law and adapt to those. Certainly, the state and senior care might change. Well, that changes how we work. So, we just keep adapting," Stephans said.

Hodges believes more will have to be done to address the needs of elder care statewide and nationwide.

"We definitely need different. We need a change to our current method. It's just not working, and nobody's liking it."

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