It should grow on a tree -- but there are no guarantees. (USDA photo)

When long-term care (LTC) planning experts at Genworth Financial organized a recent LTC impact survey, they wanted to find a new way to measure the effects of care needs on the care recipients and the caregivers.

They threw in a question about the effects of LTC care needs on spending on basics — like groceries.

They found that caregivers reported spending an average of $8,080 per year on out-of-pocket expenses, and that 58 percent reported that they had to cut spending on discretionary items, such as buying clothes, cars and restaurant meals, because of caregiving responsibilities.

Thirty-two percent of the care recipients cut spending on a category that most middle-income and upper-income people in the United States are accustomed to thinking a little about: Groceries.

The caregivers were in a somewhat better percentage when it came to eating, but 20 percent of them told Genworth caregiving responsibilities cut their grocery spending.

Pam Nelson, a Genworth vice president, said the company was just trying to get more information about the effects of LTC needs on quality of life, not really trying to carve out food costs as a separate topic.

“We noticed that there wasn’t a lot of information out there when it comes to caregiving,” Nelson said.

In the United States today, food costs make up a modest portion of nursing home care costs and only a small part of home care costs, Nelson said.

Consumers are much more likely to complain about LTC needs leading to cuts in spending on cell phones and Internet services than in grocery spending, Nelson said.

But the fact that the topic came up at all raised a question: Could the cost of food be a major source of LTC inflation that “comes out of nowhere” 10 or 20 years from now?

In 2008, before the collapse of a debt bubble led to a series of crises throughout the world that continues to this day, it looked as if the big economic story of the year was going to be the effects of growing international incomes and bad harvests on food prices. Grocery prices were soaring, even in the United States.

Maria Thomas, an LTC services user advocate at CareScout, said she noticed a change in grocery package sizes.

“You’re paying a lot more for a smaller object,” Thomas said.

The financial crisis helped cool talk about food inflation by focusing business writers’ attention on other topics, and by reducing the worldwide demand for food, by cutting consumer grocery budgets around the world.

Two years ago, rising food prices began to surface as a topic of media interest in a few stories about how food inflation had contributed to unrest in North Africa and the Middle East.

Last year, droughts and other sources of crop failure sent prices for many basic commodities soaring. This year, prices for some products, such as corn, seem to be settling down, but the ups and downs made the publicly traded LTC services companies notice that food has a cost. Many of the companies have mentioned rising food costs in quarterly and annual financial reports this year.

Another challenge is that most policymakers who try to make food-related forecasts are trying to determine whether the poorest people will have enough to eat, not how much people with moderate levels of income and assets ought to budget for post-retirement food costs.

Bob Bua, president of CareScout, said professional LTC planners who are trying to help clients include reasonable food cost projections in their budgets should remember that basic nutrition is just one function of eating.

“Eating is an activity with a purpose,” Bua said. “To fight tedium.”

One mark of a good home care agency is that the workers get the people being helped involved with planning meals, shopping and preparing the food, Bua said. 

Using private long-term care insurance (LTCI) and other tools to prepare for rising food costs could increase the odds that clients will end up with the support they need to eat good, reasonably priced food in pleasant circumstances, and not get trapped eating overpriced, lower-quality food because of a lack of the support they need to compensate for an inability to get out to shop easily on their own, Bua said.

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