Healthcare can be a daunting prospect for seniors, namely because health issues can creep up as folks age, and because Medicare comes with a lot of hidden costs that seniors aren't well-prepared for. But if there's one health-related expense that can really catch retirees off-guard, it's none other than long-term care.

It's easy to assume that you won't need long-term care in your lifetime, but in reality, an estimated 70% of seniors 65 and older need some type of it at some point. Now, for you, that could mean a few months with a home health aide. Or, it could mean needing a year of nursing home care. In the absence of a crystal ball, it's impossible to know. But one thing's for sure: Without long-term care insurance, you run the risk that you'll be forced to cover a very large expense without help.

Man in scrubs helping older man into bed.


Unfortunately, many older workers are heading toward their golden years without long-term care coverage in place. In a recent Nationwide survey, 75% of future retirees aged 50 and over said they don't have long-term care insurance. If that's the boat you're in, it's a good idea to start looking into it -- because the older you get, the more difficult it becomes to qualify, and the costlier it becomes.

The cost of long-term care can be staggering

Long-term care insurance can be expensive, which is why many people shy away from it. But chances are, your policy won't be anywhere near as expensive as the actual price tag for the care you could wind up needing.

According to Genworth's 2018 Cost of Care Survey, the average annual bill for an assisted living facility is $48,000 on a national level. For a shared room in a nursing home, it's $89,297 a year. And for a private nursing home room, it's a whopping $100,375.

Living at home isn't necessarily cheaper if you require long-term care. The average annual cost of a full-time home health aide is $50,336.

That's why it really pays to explore your options for long-term care insurance, and the ideal time to apply is in your mid-50s. At that point, you're more likely to not only get approved, but score a long-term health-based discount on your premiums. Wait too long and you'll risk getting denied or facing premiums that are prohibitively expensive (though if you're in great health, it definitely pays to apply for a policy during your 60s).

Of course, not all policies are created equal. That's why you'll want to pay attention to things outside of your premium costs, like the maximum daily benefit your policy allows for, or the maximum time frame covered by your policy (note that this should really be two years at a minimum). Also, some policies impose a waiting period for having your benefits kick in, whereas others either don't have one or have shorter ones. Therefore, you'll need to compare your options and see what makes the most sense.

Remember, too, that you don't necessarily need the most expensive long-term care policy out there. If you've amassed a healthy level of retirement savings, you'll have the option to tap your IRA or 401(k) to cover the cost of your care. The same holds if you're sitting on a home worth a lot of money (you can always sell it or borrow against it). The key, however, is to explore your options for long-term care insurance before that window of opportunity closes for you due to age or health problems, leaving you to cover what could be a devastatingly expensive bill.