Staying at home during an illness is a luxury for many Americans who cannot afford long-term care.

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AT 28 years old, the cost of long-term health care was something that had never crossed my mind. It wasn’t until my mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer that I began to understand the importance and high price of long-term care.

Facing a frightening diagnosis, my mother strove to hold on to the things in her life she could still control. Staying in her home and remaining as independent as possible were very important to her. At the time of her diagnosis, I was living across the country, but I was able to take time away from work to move back to Connecticut and help her accomplish that goal.

When her illness progressed to the point where she could not care for herself, she was able to afford a live-in nurse who attended to her medical and personal long-term-care needs. If she had been faced with this diagnosis later in life, she would not have been able to afford that luxury.

‘My take’

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I am not attempting to be dramatic when I use the word luxury. Long-term care, like a lot of medical care and treatment in the United States, is a luxury for most. At a time when many industrialized countries provide universal health care to their citizens and view health care as a right, the U.S. continues to see it as a commodity. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 has improved Americans’ access to health care, but it hasn’t extended long-term-care coverage for the most vulnerable populations — the elderly and disabled.

Long-term care encompasses a range of services and support for an individual’s personal-care needs, such as bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning and managing money. An estimated 70 percent of adults 65 and older will need long-term care services and support at some point in their life. Medicare, the primary insurance for 54 million older adults and people with disabilities, does not cover long-term care services because they are not considered medical care.

The cost of long-term care is extraordinary — in Washington state, it averages about $50,000 a year. For most people, the high cost of care is debilitating, and many are forced to liquidate their assets and spend their life savings in order to pay for it.

Many people don’t understand how Medicare works and mistakenly believe there are no restrictions on long-term-care services. In order to address this problem, we need to expand awareness about Medicare’s long-term-care coverage, or lack thereof.

Secondly, Medicare needs to reassess the definition of “medical care” and broaden its coverage to include long-term-care services. Medical care should not be restricted to physical and mental ailments. It should aim to preserve the autonomy, dignity and well-being of people facing illness or disability.

Over the next 15 years, the Medicare population is going to grow immensely as the baby boomer generation continues to enter retirement. Raising awareness about Medicare’s lack of long-term-care coverage will be a good start, but a change in policy that mends the gap in coverage is also needed.

It’s been a few years since my mother passed away, but I am grateful that she got to remain in her home, where she wanted to be, until she died. Being able to stay in your home when you are faced with illness or disability should never be considered a luxury.