Seniors & Aging

Health issues confront seniors

Visiting Angels nursing assistant Shaaxsaani Pealatere helps Merrill Gardens resident Doug Southgate  get dressed Tuesday morning, Nov. 10, 2009  "We are well spoiled," says Doug about Pealatere's daily care.
Visiting Angels nursing assistant Shaaxsaani Pealatere helps Merrill Gardens resident Doug Southgate get dressed Tuesday morning, Nov. 10, 2009 "We are well spoiled," says Doug about Pealatere's daily care. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Doug Southgate, 89, moved to Bellingham from Oregon in July and has been using in-home care through Visiting Angels for several months.

Southgate, who uses a wheelchair, was originally hesitant about allowing another person into his home, but has become close with Janice, his care provider.

"Us old characters in our 80s, and such, are kind of reluctant to ask for help," he says. "But I couldn't be happier. ... She's become like family to us."

For seniors who, like Southgate, live with physical limitations, a little help around the house can go a long way. Many seniors rely on friends, neighbors or family to help clean, shop for groceries, or cook meals. But friends, neighbors and family often have their own lives and commitments, meaning seniors sometimes must look for outside help in their daily activities.

Luckily, there are several local organizations that specialize in setting up seniors with qualified home care assistants.

In-home care might mean as little as having a caregiver come for an hour or two a day once or twice a week to tidy the house or to run errands with the senior. For seniors bed-ridden due to sickness or injury, it could mean having a registered nurse stay at the home to assist with bathing and to monitor their medication.

Either way, it enables seniors to stay at home instead of moving to a more expensive nursing home or assisted living facility.

Medicare doesn't cover housekeeping services, but might cover temporary in-home care if the patient is recovering from injury or sickness and needs skilled help. Meanwhile, low-income seniors might qualify for the COPES program, a Medicaid program that pays for a portion of in-home care.

Many seniors elect to pay out of pocket for in-home help, which starts at about $18 an hour for non-medical care.

"With the (Great Depression) generation, they're very proud of their independence," says Terri Bryant Booth, executive director of the local chapter of Visiting Nurse Home Care. "What we're doing is helping them maintain their independence, not taking it away."


COPES Program, DSHS: 756-5750.

Catholic Community Services: 738-6163.

Friendly Visitors: 756-5179.

Home Attendant Care: 734-3849.

Senior Information and Assistance: 738-2500.

Signature Home Health: 671-5872.

Visiting Angels Living Assistance: 671-8388.

Visiting Nurse Home Care: 734-9662.

Here's a look at two other health issues facing seniors:


As you near 65, you will receive a packet of information in the mail explaining Medicare health coverage and how you can enroll. But getting the most out of Medicare involves much more than just sending back the enrollment forms.

Experts suggest that you stay informed about your Medicare coverage, particularly if you're enrolled in Part D, which covers prescription drug costs. The details of many of the 30 or so plans change every year, meaning a drug you may be accustomed to Medicare covering might not be covered under your current plan next year.

"It's very important that people are proactive about their health coverage," says Lillian Gonzalez, an advisor at Senior Information and Assistance in Bellingham. "If you're happy with your drug plan, check back before the end of the year and make sure your drugs are still covered."

The Medicare system has four parts:

Part A covers hospital visits, short-term stays at skilled nursing facilities, hospice care for the terminally ill, and some home health services and equipment, such as wheelchairs, walkers and oxygen.

Seniors are automatically enrolled in Part A, which is free for most people who paid Medicare taxes while they or their spouse worked.

Part B covers some outpatient and preventative care costs, such as tests and screenings, flu shots, and diabetic treatment. Some part-time, in-home care and physical therapy may be covered.

Part B requires seniors pay a monthly premium of $96.40 for individuals with adjusted gross income under $85,000, or under $170,000 for couples. Those in higher tax brackets may be charged higher premiums.

Part C is a combination of parts A and B, but is provided through Medicare-approved private insurance companies. Part C can be advantageous for seniors who require a low level of care.

Depending on what sort of Part C plan you pick, you might have fewer choices of doctors and be required to pay extra to visit a specialist.

Part D covers a portion of prescription drug costs for seniors. In 2010, Part D enrollees must reach an annual deductable of $310 before the plan begins covering 75 percent of their drug costs. In addition, seniors pay a monthly premium of around $38, depending on which plan they choose.

Different plans cover different drugs, so seniors should do their research and consult with their doctors before enrolling. Medicare's Web site contains a "drug plan finder" that will match you with the most appropriate plan.


For Medicare information, call (800) MEDICARE, or go online to For localized help, call Senior Information and Assistance at 738-2500.


Getting old isn't easy. Whether it's adapting to life in wheelchair or dealing with memory loss and Alzheimer's disease old age is full of potentially traumatic and emotional life changes.

Learning to handle such changes can mean the difference to a fulfilling end to your life, or a difficult one.

Studies show Americans over the age of 65 are especially at risk of depression. A 2003 study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 1 to 5 percent of seniors suffer from depression, but the number rises to more than 13.5 percent for those who require in-home care, and 11.5 percent for elderly hospital patients.

Unfortunately, suicide rates are higher in older age groups, too.

Experts say staying active, both mentally and physically, is key in staying happy. Isolation and inactivity often feeds depression.

So get involved with your local senior center, where you can meet other people your age who are often dealing with the same issues you are. Take up a hobby or find someplace to volunteer your time. And make sure you maintain a healthy diet and try to get some form of exercise.

Seniors who show no sign of improvement might be suffering from more severe types of depression. They should consult their doctor and consider anti-depressant medication.

Kim Farmer, clinical manager at St. Joseph Hospital's Behavioral Health Inpatient Center says seniors and their families shouldn't be hesitant to ask for professional help.

"'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps' sounds like an easy way out, but if you've tried that and it isn't working, that's when you should ask for help," Farmer says. "Just because you're older doesn't mean you have to be depressed."

For people suffering from depression in connection with Alzheimer's disease, several Whatcom County groups meet regularly to offer emotional support. Talking with others who face the same challenges can help affected seniors make sense of what they are going through.


Chronic sadness; loss of self-worth.

Eating or sleeping more, or less, than normal.

Lack of interest in hobbies or pastimes.

Withdrawal from social situations; refusing to leave home.

Increased use of alcohol or drugs.

Inability or unwillingness to handle personal hygiene.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health.


Alzheimer Society of Washington: 671-3316 or

Care Crisis Line: (800) 584-3578.

Mental Health Access Line: (888) 693-7200.

National Association for the Mentally Ill of Whatcom County: 671-4950.

St. Joseph Hospital's Behavioral Health Inpatient Center: 715-6526 or 715-6413.

Sea Mar Counseling and Psychiatric Clinic: 734-5458.