6 Aug 2018

Families of dementia sufferers face huge bills

10:02 am on 6 August 2018

A woman whose mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and denied financial assistance has been left struggling to cover the $150-a-day cost of care - and she is calling for legislative change.

Grace Taylor and her mum, who was diagnosed with alzheimers.

Grace Taylor and her mum, who was diagnosed with alzheimers. Photo: Supplied

When Grace Taylor's mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's she was forced into early retirement and left without an income.

However, early this year, recognising she could no longer live on her own, and with needs beyond what Ms Taylor could meet, a medical team recommended full time care.

As a solo mum who works full time to pay the mortgage she, along with her brother who lives in Australia, made the difficult decision to move their mum into a care home.

The cost of in-home care was out of reach at $30 an hour and one of the cheapest care homes Grace could find was in the Auckland suburb of Māngere, where a basic room costs $150 a day.

While this cost can be covered by the government's Residential Care Subsidy, for Ms Taylor's mum it wasn't because a year earlier she had gifted her house to her children.

"My mum is Samoan. For me as a Samoan daughter to even put my mum in a care home was a massive decision... and very hard," said Ms Taylor.

"My mum has worked all her life in New Zealand since she came from Samoa in her early twenties. She's worked 12 hours a day, if not more, six days a week, has never received any benefit from the government, especially being a single mum. She's been a good person and contributed to the economy and now she's being punished."

To qualify for the Residential Care Subsidy, if you are over 65, don't have a partner or one in care, the total value of your assets must be $227,125 or less. This includes the value of a house, car and any savings.

Ms Taylor's mum is 66-years-old, single and has no assets in her name.

However, MSD includes any assets over a five-year period prior to an application for assistance. Gifting assets in this time is only allowed up to $6,500 within each 12 month period.

Just over a year ago, Ms Taylor's mum transferred her home into the names of her children. No money was exchanged and Ms Taylor took over the mortgage.

But after being declined the subsidy, and with the cost of care reaching a crippling $200,000 over the next four years, Ms Taylor is now forced to sell that house - her mother's home of 40 years.

'That breaks my heart'

"That home is all my mum had in this world in the material sense. It's all she had left and the only place she felt safe and now we have to sell it.

"That breaks my heart and I'm going to have to keep retelling that to my mum and she'll get angry with me, and hurt."

Ms Taylor said her mum worked two jobs, sometimes three, to keep the home and pay the mortgage so that it could be passed on to Ms Taylor's son, as security for his future.

"There's this assumption when it comes to Pacific families that 'oh, you know, the whole family come around, a village comes around them as an extended family' but what happens when you don't have that?"

Grace and her brother had to make the difficult decision to put their mum in a care home.

Grace and her brother had to make the difficult decision to put their mum in a care home. Photo: Supplied

Ms Taylor's mum receives superannuation of around $350 a week. Her accommodation supplement of $85 per week was cancelled when she moved into the care home, despite her accommodation costs greatly increasing.

Viv Rickard, of the Ministry of Social Development, said: "I make it very clear that we don't cancel the Accommodation Supplement as a matter of course, it's on a case-by-case basis and we need to engage with our clients around that."

Ms Taylor said MSD didn't do this.

MSD records show that two months after Ms Taylor's mum entered the care home and her supplement was cancelled, it wrote to Ms Taylor explaining further what her mother's change in circumstances meant to her accommodation supplement.

She is not alone in her struggle.

Papers released under the Official Information Act showed that each year around 1000 people with assets or income over the threshold receive no government help to pay weekly residential care costs that can reach over $1000.

It's legislation Ms Taylor wants reviewed.

She said she understands why the threshold exists for the subsidy and that people over the years may have taken advantage of it, putting money or assets into trusts.

"What I don't understand is why it is a blanketed criteria for every single individual person within New Zealand, we are all complex human beings, we all have different circumstances.

"My mother didn't sell her home to make money, she sold it out of necessity because her disease, that there's no cure for, pushed her into a situation where she can't work."

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Photo: Supplied

Dementia NZ says the rules are too tough.

Chief Executive Paul Sullivan believes a substantial review of the threshold is needed and the costs of care are "horrendously expensive".

"The asset base that you have to fall below to qualify for the subsidy is, I would argue, really quite low.

"We get a lot of people saying to us, look I just didn't know that dementia would be this expensive. It really costs people a lot of money."

For people with a partner, the threshold restriction leaves that partner no choice but to live off a small amount of money, possibly over decades, he said.

No plans for change - govt

About 60,000 New Zealanders have dementia, a number which is set to almost triple by 2050.

For Ms Taylor, the grief involved in watching her mother deteriorate to a disease that there is no cure for is heartbreaking.

"There is a part of your heart that breaks and will not be fixed again and having to deal with that grief, as well as … money problems and financial issues and fighting the system. It's extremely stressful.

She said it's the system as a whole that is the problem, not the individual's working for the system.

"I'm hopeful that now we have this government in place, they will be a bit more radical."

The government said it had no plans to review the thresholds.

In a letter to Ms Taylor, Minister of Health David Clark said there was a review underway that looked at how aged residential care providers were funded.

But in the meantime, and for the next four years, Ms Taylor still has to cover the bill of $150 a day for her mother's care.

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