When Nancy Gratzel's mother had a sudden change in her health requiring placement in a nursing home, Gratzel and her four siblings found themselves overwhelmed by the complex paperwork to qualify for Medicaid coverage. So they turned to Stephen Mielach, a geriatric-care manager based in their community of Toms River, N.J.
Now Mielach also shares a power of attorney with Gratzel to assist her 88-year-old father, now living on his own, with bill-paying - a task that his wife used to perform exclusively. Her father appreciated the help and began to look forward to Mielach's visits, she said.
"To me, that was a good use of my parents' money which we were going to have to spend anyway (to meet Medicaid qualifications)," Gratzel said. "It afforded me the opportunity to direct my energy towards nicer things, helping my mom adjust to the facility and my dad to living at home alone. They had been married 67 years."
While most seniors and their families do not go so far as to assign power of attorney to geriatric-care managers, members of this growing profession can assist not just with money matters but also with navigating the often complicated decisions about what care is best for mom, dad or another relative.
Sometimes they help resolve a short-term challenge such as Mielach did initially for Gratzel's mother or they may provide assistance over a period of months or years. Sample tasks range from vetting home health aides to assessing whether a senior is able to remain at home or needs to relocate to an assisted-living community or nursing home. They may also accompany seniors to medical appointments and ensure they receive the prescribed follow-up such as lab tests and radiology scans or find contractors and coordinate bids for home repairs, for instance.
Or when a senior has no spouse or children, a geriatric-care manager may take on even more responsibilities to fill that void.
"For people who have family, I become the expert in the family," Mielach said. "For those with no family, I become family for hire."
BOOMERS' AGING PARENTS SPUR DEMAND
The profession of geriatric-care manager has been around for decades but really has taken off in the past 10 years as the baby boomers increasingly became long-distance caretakers of elderly parents, said Joyce Gray, a Philadelphia-based certified geriatric-care manager who serves on the board of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, the industry's trade association. The group's membership has grown from 50 to 2,000 since its 1985 founding.
"There are a lot more older people who don't have someone locally to look after them," Gray said. "The baby boomers also are more used to paying for services and expecting high quality and results."
Another change Gray has noticed is that more people are contacting her proactively rather than in the middle of a crisis such as a broken hip or an Alzheimer's diagnosis, she said.
A decade ago, Ron Fatoullah, a New York-based certified elder law attorney, rarely recommended that his clients consult a geriatric-care manager. Now he refers at least one-third to see one, if only to validate that seniors and their family are making the appropriate care and financial decisions for their health and happiness.
"I have to know that my client is placed in the right facility, and if they're going to be at home, that it's the proper environment with all the safety features they need," Fatoullah said. "The care management assessment heavily dictates how I do my legal work."
In the case of Gratzel's mother, all family members agreed she needed nursing home care. However, geriatric-care managers also can be valuable third-party referees, providing an impartial viewpoint to siblings or children and a parent with different opinions about what is best for the senior, Fatoullah said.
"I've seen a reluctance among seniors to want any care, and if a child mentions it, the parent may bite the child's head off," he added. "But some geriatric-care managers are very good with seniors and letting them know in a constructive way that they do need care."
A BACKGROUND IN NURSING OR SOCIAL WORK
Most geriatric-care managers come to the profession from nursing, social work or a handful of other fields related to geriatrics or long-term care, according to NAPGCM.
Before launching his geriatric-care management practice 20 years ago, Mielach, a licensed clinical social worker, was director of social work at a hospital. During that time, he became an expert in tracking down relatives of seniors who were admitted to the hospital and did not have obvious family members. Those responsibilities eventually led to him becoming a court-appointed guardian when no relatives could be found, and he realized that he enjoyed not just the detective work but the chance to improve people's lives.
Mielach even accompanied one New Jersey woman with dementia across the country to move into a New Mexico assisted-living community near close friends.
He also sometimes serves as a health proxy, a legal status which allows him to make medical decisions based on a previous consultation as to the senior's wishes, he said. In a recent example, a client of 12 years had a stroke which robbed her not just of mobility but the ability to speak, and Mielach had to inform the EMS team that she did not want to be taken to the hospital.
"I always go into detail about what values you have so if a situation comes up, I can make decisions consistent with your values," Mielach said. "But in 20 years of doing this, I have never been so confident that someone did not want treatment as with this woman."
Geriatric-case managers typically charge by the hour, and rates vary from $80-$200/hour depending on location, Gray said. Most also charge an initial assessment fee ranging from $300-$800, she added.
Some geriatric-care managers may also agree to a lump sum for a particular service. For example, Mielach charges between $1,000 to $5,000 to research and prepare a Medicaid application, depending on the complexity involved.
While health insurance policies do not cover care-management services, some long-term-care policies do.