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Top official on aging listens to caregivers

Dr. Jeanette Takamura made a fact-finding swing through Pinellas and Pasco counties Thursday.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


Lee Mahoney knows caregiving.

For years, the 65-year-old Port Richey retiree tended to her demented mother -- changing diapers, feeding, bathing, withstanding violent rages. Then her husband got cancer and died at home in her arms. Now she's nursing her 46-year-old son who nearly died a few months ago in an auto accident.

Yet for all that nurturing, Mahoney often feels guilty -- because she put her mother in a nursing home when the burden became too great. Her mother, now 98, hasn't recognized her for years, but "many times I come home crying all the way in the car."

On Thursday, Mahoney found a highly placed and sympathetic ear.

Dr. Jeanette Takamura, the nation's top official on aging, made a fact-finding swing through Pinellas and Pasco counties, including a stop at New Port Richey's Claude Pepper Senior Health Clinic, where Mahoney and other caregivers shared stories about their lives.

Takamura, an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, is touting a Clinton administration proposal to spend $125-million to support family caregivers. Programs would include respite care, information services and counseling.

In addition, the administration is pushing a $3,000-a-year tax credit for people who keep frail loved ones out of nursing homes -- money people could use for homemaker services or home health aides.

Families quietly provide about 90 percent of America's long-term care, Takamura said.

"People tell me they are just exhausted and sometimes can't get through the day. We want to be careful that we don't end up with two people needing support."

Earlier in the day, Takamura visited the Palm Harbor Senior Center to help kick off an anti-fraud campaign called the Senior Medicare & Medicaid Patrol Project. Financed by a $170,000 federal grant, the program is designed to turn Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco seniors into thousands of fraud watchdogs.

People will be trained to pore over their Medicare and Medicaid bills and look for suspicious charges.

Similar programs around the country have recouped $23 in inappropriate billings for every $1 spent on organizing the program, Takamura said. (For information, call the Area Agency on Aging at (727) 570-5151.)

For lunch, Takamura ate turkey, dressing, green beans and sugar-free cherry pie at Union Academy Cultural Center in Tarpon Springs, which houses a twice-weekly senior congregate dining program run by Neighborly Senior Services.

Lunchtime conversation turned to rising gas prices and Meal on Wheels. Volunteer drivers have left the popular nutrition program because they can't afford the gas, said director Frank Kneer. Some routes are close to shutting down. "If the price goes to $2, we will lose 30 percent of our drivers."

That was an eye-opener, said Takamura, whose agency funds Meals on Wheels. "It's really important to get input from communities like these. That fuel question wouldn't come up in a Boston or New York City where there is better mass transit."

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