The state can't eliminate the difficulties people face as they care for sick and aging family members at home.

But under a bill advancing in the Senate and Assembly, legislators have the opportunity to at least ease the financial hardship for many families. They should support the measure both for the sake of caregivers and to advance New Jersey's stated goal of shifting the focus of health care for the elderly away from institutions.

The legislation released last month by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee would provide a tax credit of as much as $675 to help offset the costs of things such as dressing, feeding, cleaning and providing basic medical care for a relative who is 60 or older and lives in a caregiver's home.

There are an estimated 1.75 million caregivers in the state providing home services valued each year at $13 billion, according to AARP, which has made the Caregiver's Assistance Act one of its top health care priorities.

Some of that care is covered by insurance or government programs, but out-of-pocket expenses - ranging from buying adult diapers to modifying a home to accommodate a sick person - can add to the stress felt by caregivers, many of whom are balancing their working lives with their compassionate responsibilities.

A $675 tax credit wouldn't pay for everything, of course, but it would offer some help to moderate- and lower-income taxpayers. AARP estimates that home caregivers - 65 percent of whom are women - put in nearly 20 hours per week and report spending an average of more than $5,000 per year in out-of-pocket expenses.

The credit would cover 22.5 percent of up to $3,000 of those out-of-pocket costs. There would be an income limit of $100,000 for a couple filing a joint return or $50,000 for a caregiver filing a single return.

In addition to some financial assistance, the measure promotes the goal stated by Gov. Chris Christie in his budget address earlier this year of shifting long-term care from nursing homes and other institutions to home-based services.

"My philosophy is to allow New Jerseyans to maintain their independence and receive care in the community in their homes for as long as possible," Christie said.

The Caregiver's Assistance Act should be part of the state's efforts to put that philosophy into practice.

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