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EDITORIAL: Baby boomer bubble could change things

Wisconsin, along with many other states, are systematically getting rid of licensed nursing home beds. While the reductions make sense right now, in the face of dropping demand, it could be viewed as a risky proposition.

According to Larry Lester, a nursing home consultant advising St. Croix County on the future of its publicly-owned nursing home, states hope a new way of caring for the elderly and infirm will continue to curb demand for skilled nursing beds as the years roll by.

The hope, Lester told the Health and Human Services Board last week, is that less expensive ways to care for loved ones will emerge. Either families will choose to care for the elderly and people who are severely disabled at home with home-based help, or these individuals will be adequately cared for in an assisted living facility or smaller group homes that aren't as expensive to operate as nursing homes.

He warned, however, that this move away from skilled nursing centers comes at a great risk as the Baby Boomer generation heads deep into their golden years.

Demand for nursing home beds may be lower now, he told county officials at last week's HHS Board meeting, but 20 years from now (when throngs of Boomers start turning 85) there could be a huge influx of people needing such specialized care.

If nursing homes remain the best and most efficient place to care for some elderly and disabled people, there may be significant pressure to open up more beds to meet the need. That process of licensing more beds, and paying for the construction of new facilities, will be a difficult one.

If demand does in fact spike, Lester predicts, the state budget will be stretched to its limits in caring for our aging population. State officials, along with those in the business of caring for the elderly, need to look realistically at what the future holds and map out a plan to handle any number of such scenarios. We can't just ignore it and hope it goes away.

"Nobody at the state level is even looking at this," Lester warned.

With that in mind, one wonders about the wisdom of closing the St. Croix County Health Center nursing home at this point of its history. There may be enough open beds in private facilities right now to take care of area residents in the late stages of their life, but the Boomer wave is approaching.

Government is in the business of preparing for serious public health care dilemmas, especially when they are easy to predict. In this case, there is little evidence to believe that nursing home bed demand will continue to decline. There is much evidence that demand might soon inch upward.

By keeping the New Richmond facility open, and building a new facility and adding an assisted living complex catering to low and moderate income individuals, our county government will have taken proactive steps to do its part to meet the care needs of its residents for decades to come.