How to Choose Long-Term Care Insurance

Medically Reviewed by Charlene Frizzera on April 26, 2013
3 min read

If you're concerned about being able to afford care when you get old, long-term care insurance can help.

Long-term care helps you if you become chronically ill or disabled. Some long-term care is medical care, but most long-term care is what's called "custodial care."

For example, long-term care can help you with personal tasks, such as:

  • Eating
  • Grooming
  • Getting out of bed

It can also help with household tasks such as:

  • Housework
  • Preparing meals
  • Managing your money

You can receive long-term care in different places, such as:

  • Your home
  • An assisted-living facility
  • A nursing home

Long-term care can be costly. But long-term care insurance can help cover some of your bills. If you're thinking about buying coverage, follow these tips:

Start planning early. The best time to start thinking about buying coverage is when you're between 55 and 65, says Jesse Slome. He is executive director of the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, a national trade organization.

A big reason is that insurance companies will ask about your health before selling you long-term care insurance. Since your health changes as you age, looking into long-term care insurance sooner is better than later, Slome says.

Don't assume Medicare covers long-term care. Generally, Medicare doesn't pay for long-term care. Medicare pays only for a skilled nursing facility or home health care that is medically necessary. It doesn't cover support services such as help for activities of daily living.

Compare coverage. Long-term care insurance definitely is not one-size-fits-all. But don't let weighing the pros and cons of long-term care policies overwhelm you. Focus on what's most important to you, says Dee Mahan, director of Medicaid Advocacy at Families USA. That's a national nonprofit organization that advocates for affordable, high-quality health care.

"Do you want to stay at home? Would you be OK with moving to an assisted-living facility?" Mahan says. "Know your top priorities and make sure you get a policy that will cover that."

Also, plans will not pay benefits until certain conditions are met, so it's important you understand what those are, Mahan says.

Mahan suggests you make sure your coverage includes inflation protection. "You want some kind of protection in there if the cost of care goes up so that the value of the coverage you're buying stays the same," she says.

"You also have to make sure that you're going to be able to keep the premium payments up," Mahan says. "Like any insurance, if you can't pay your premiums your policy gets canceled -- and you've lost all the value of what you've put in."

Don't take an all-or-nothing approach. Many people mistakenly look to long-term care insurance to cover the full cost of care, Slome says. Then they realize how expensive it is, go into "sticker shock," and end up doing nothing.

Instead, Slome suggests you take into account how much savings, Social Security benefits, and investment income you'll have in the future. All those can be used to supplement insurance coverage.

"People neglect the fact that they'll have savings, assets, and other things that could pay -- and should pay -- some of the cost," he says.

Work with an insurance professional. If you have a relationship with a financial planner, ask him or her for referrals to a specialist in long-term care insurance.