Gov. Mills launches program to give grants up to $2,000 to family caregivers

Sep. 28—The Mills administration is launching a $5.1 million pilot program that would provide grants of up to $2,000 to people caring for a family member with a disability.

The program, called Respite for ME, begins Monday. The one-time grants aim to help people who are caring for family members who have Alzheimer's, dementia or other disabilities.

Funding for the two-year pilot comes from the federal American Rescue Plan. The Mills administration could not estimate how many people would be eligible, but there are an estimated 29,000 people ages 65 and older in Maine living with Alzheimer's. Some are in memory care facilities, but others get care at home.

The money can be used for respite care, which provides help with daily tasks such as feeding, dressing and bathing to give family caretakers a break from those chores. It can also be used to cover other costs, such as assistive technology — anything from hearing aids to wheelchairs to devices that help patients retain memory.

"Families across Maine are doing their best to care for the people they love in the comfort of their own homes, but it isn't always easy," said Gov. Janet Mills in a statement. "Respite for ME will give families access to important services so they can better support themselves and their loved ones."

Bridget Quinn, AARP Maine advocacy and outreach director, said in an interview with the Press Herald on Wednesday that the need is great, with more than 181,000 unpaid caregivers in the state taking care of a family member.

"This is absolutely a step in the right direction," Quinn said. "We don't have quite the systems in place to support our caregivers. They are giving their time, resources, and often spend thousands out-of-pocket. If you install a ramp at the home, for instance, that's coming straight out-of-pocket."

Quinn said these at-home caregivers help family members age in place, but they need a better support system.

The news comes on the same day as Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai announced that its experimental medication for Alzheimer's slowed cognitive decline in patients in the early stages of the disease. The drug reduced cognitive decline by 27 percent over 18 months compared to a placebo in a study of about 1,800 patients.

But in Maine, which has the highest median age in the country, the number of people needing in-home support and care is only going to increase.

Brenda Gallant, executive director of the Maine Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, said in a statement that family caregivers "face the enormous challenge of providing care and support that is often needed 24 hours a day. The demands of caregiving can take a toll emotionally, physically, and financially and may lead to caregiver burnout. Respite for ME will provide critically needed respite services for family caregivers, strengthening their ability to be a caregiver."

To be eligible, the caregiver must be an adult who is not otherwise getting paid for the care provided. The pilot program will be used to evaluate "what services are most effective in supporting families going forward," according to the news release.

Those looking for more information about the program should call (877) 353-3771.