The demographics are changing, and if we are about long-term planning in our state, which we often espouse ourselves to be, I think it is very important that we think about support for seniors who want to stay in their homes," Chavez-Houck said Thursday. "I think people are often very willing to help, but sometimes it takes more than the human resource. —Utah Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is home to about 383,000 caregivers who help aging parents, spouses and other loved ones stay in their homes for as long as possible.

While some may feel it an obligation to honor and respect their ancestors, it isn't always easy, and a state-by-state report from the AARP says Utah could do better to support caregivers.

The Beehive State ranks last in the nation in AARP's Raising Expectations 2014 scorecard for its support of family caregivers. The ranking includes a look at legal supports and stress levels, among other factors.

"When it comes to helping older Utahns live in the setting of their choice, this silent army of family caregivers assumes the lion's share of responsibility," said Alan Ormsby, director of AARP Utah, which serves more than 212,000 Utahns ages 50 and older.

"Many juggle full-time jobs with their caregiving duties. Others provide 24/7 care for their loved ones. With every task they undertake, these family caregivers save the state money by keeping their loved ones out of costly nursing homes most often paid for by Medicaid. They have earned some basic support," Ormsby said.

Family caregivers often provide help to bathe and dress their loved ones, as well as schedule appointments and take them places, handle finances and perform complex medical tasks such as wound care and injections. The AARP estimates that these caregivers provide 365 million hours of unpaid care each year at an economic value of $4.2 billion.

Carolyn Hunter, of Holladay, helps care for her 96-year-old parents and an elderly uncle. She said she tries to keep a good attitude about it and has developed a love for previous generations.

"People don't always acknowledge the gifts and experience that they can offer," Hunter said. "These people have lived through so many inventions and have been tough as nails, and I really appreciate learning about that and experiencing that. It's rich."

Hunter, who is in her 70s, shares a caregiving responsibility with several siblings in the area and is at an advantage having studied gerontology and worked with the AARP and other agencies for years.

She knows the system better than most but still experiences occasional hang-ups.

"People are not always willing to accept help, even when their safety may be in jeopardy or their quality of life suffers," Hunter said. "It's a tough thing for people to admit they need assistance."

Caregivers, she said, also fall into that category. Hunter said the state needs more funding for programs that aid caregivers, specifically in respite care.

Utah Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, recently championed HJR14, which encouraged lawmakers to acknowledge caregiving as a necessary profession in Utah. She said the state is facing what is referred to as "the silver tsunami," as the state's population advances in age.

"The demographics are changing, and if we are about long-term planning in our state, which we often espouse ourselves to be, I think it is very important that we think about support for seniors who want to stay in their homes," Chavez-Houck said Thursday. "I think people are often very willing to help, but sometimes it takes more than the human resource."

She aims to continue pushing for more caregiving assistance statewide, saying "the government does need to play a role in this" or it will pay more in the long run.

Chavez-Houck is also hoping to again back a bill that would increase investigative staff to help protect seniors and their hard-earned nest eggs.

"You have these individuals who have been working all their lives to take care of themselves and then to have some people take advantage of them, it's very sad," she said.

There is a movement afoot, Chavez-Houck said, that is helping more people to understand the challenges people face in trying to care for their loved ones. She said Utahns can help by expressing challenging circumstances to their legislators.

"I admire and complement families doing the best they can to take care of their seniors and family members," she said. "They sometimes just need a little extra help."

The AARP puts Utah 39th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to meeting the long-term care needs of older residents, indicating more must be done — at an accelerated pace — to improve the long-term supports and services in the state.

Utah ranks 46th in the availability of choice of setting and providers, 25th in quality of care and 34th in affordability and access, according to the scorecard.

By 2030, 72 million Americans will be over age 65, and the ratio nationally of caregivers will go from 7 to 1 to 3 to 1, Ormsby said. "The scorecard shows we have more to do — and we don't have time to stand idle."

"You never know what's going to happen, and it all depends on how long they live and their general state of health," Hunter said.

Her father exercises every day and willingly climbs the four flights of stairs to get home. He uses the Internet and is "a pretty sharp old guy," Hunter said, adding that her mother is less mobile but still alert and partaking in daily activities.

Caring for them has proven difficult but worthwhile, she said, adding that "it's a way to pay back the goodness we experienced as children.

"You have to honor them, and you have to respect their opinions and where they're coming from," Hunter said. "Sometimes you feel like you know better, but it is not always a majority opinion."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards