The number of older North Carolinians who need help staying in their homes - and out of nursing homes - has leapt by 55 percent in just two years. That pace isn't likely to slacken as retirees discover North Carolina's charms and as native baby boomers attain antique status.

Instead, they're falling behind. Something like 10,000 Tar Heels are stuck on waiting lists for services such as Meals on Wheels, help with housework and simple health care, and transportation to grocery stores and doctors' appointments.

The state has a choice: It can provide money for programs that help keep people in their own homes, or it can provide a lot more money for the Medicaid program that pays medical bills and nursing home fees.

Speaking of saving money for the taxpayers, it makes sense to reinstate a tax credit for people who buy long-term care insurance. Offering an incentive to buy such insurance, which is far from cheap, may offer the state's best hope of containing the cost of care in years to come.

The state also needs to offer relief from steeply rising property taxes for older people who are - take your pick - blessed or cursed to live in places that have suddenly become popular.

That's happening, needless to say, on the coast, in the mountains and in historic downtowns. People who've been living in relatively modest family houses for decades are being taxed out of them because people with lots of money are driving up real-estate values - often knocking down older houses and erecting mini-Biltmores that overwhelm the neighborhood, the environment and our sense of place.

Unless lawmakers, governors and local officials have the foresight, wisdom and decency to look out for our aging population, North Carolina increasingly could become a playground for the old rich and a prison for the old poor.

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