While Americans are increasingly aware of their long term care risks, few seem to know what to do about it, according to research unveiled in October by John Hancock as part of the launch of a national educational effort to better inform consumers on the realties of long term care and long term care insurance.

“Long term care can be a very, very tough thing to think about,” said Laura Moore, president of John Hancock Long Term Care. “It’s more comfortable not to think about it, and unfortunately that’s what most consumers are doing.”

The research was based on an online survey conducted by Chicago-based research firm Synovate that measured the results of a sample of 959 Americans between the ages of 21 and 75. The sample group was balanced to represent the general population based upon region, gender, age and household income.

Four out of 5 of those surveyed had an understanding of the risk of long term care, correctly identifying that the average lifetime chance of needing long term care for an individual over age 65 is greater than 40%.

Beyond that, however, consumer knowledge took a sharp downturn. Moore said that “over half failed the survey completely,” with most respondents answering only 6 of 14 questions correctly. Seven in 10 estimated the average cost of a nursing home to be less than half of its actual current cost.

Additionally, 40% of respondents believed that Medicare covers the costs of nursing home care for Alzheimer’s disease, which it does not.

Moore noted that clearing up the misconceptions about how much assistance can be expected from Medicare is a critical part of the effort to educate consumers about long term care needs.

“It is important for all of us to know the limitations and requirements of Medicare and Medicaid,” she said. “These programs do help many, but most of us should realize that we ourselves will most probably have to pay for the long term care services we may need.”

While long term care issues are important, Mathew Greenwald, chief executive officer of Mathew Greenwald and Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based research firm, said that the problem will become more intense as the “baby boom” generation enters their senior years.

“As the population ages, the demands on government and family will intensify, putting more seniors at risk,” Greenwald said.

Additionally, he noted that the costs of long term care are rising. The costs of nursing homes, for example, are rising faster than inflation, he said.

If seniors are unable to meet these costs, or overestimate the amount of assistance the government will provide, the burden of long term care generally falls on other family members. Failing to anticipate these costs, Greenwald said, “can be punishing not just for the one who needs long term care, but for who he or she loves the most.”

A significant amount of long term care is provided by family members, “most notably daughters or daughters-in-law,” Greenwald said, and given the shift in population demographics, many of those who will need long term care won’t have someone to help them. Many baby boomers are able to provide care for their parents, he explained, but a declining birthrate means that many of those same boomers won’t have children of their own to help them when the time comes.

Greenwald said jokingly that the parents of the baby boomers had the “foresight” to give birth to “all these caregivers.” Unfortunately for the boomers themselves, he added, “many who need care will not have children to fall back on.”

Recent media reports have raised concerns about long term care coverage, and the insurance industry’s practices in paying claims. Moore noted that John Hancock has paid out over $1 billion in long term care claims, and that on average 97% of long term care claims are paid industrywide.

The education effort being undertaken, Moore said, will provide a “tremendous opportunity for the industry to step up and let people know that we have a compassionate and responsible claims payment process.”

John Hancock’s education effort on long term care was launched in partnership with Kiplingers, which has produced a video for consumers on long term care issues and the need for coverage.