People buy long-term care insurance crossing their fingers they'll never have to use it. Which, along with its relatively high price tag, is probably why others resist even thinking about buying it.

Frankly, it can be depressing. Long-term care insurance covers services -- home health care, assisted living, nursing homes -- for people who need help performing day-to-day activities because of a physical or cognitive impairment.

Most of us hope that time never comes. But it does for about 70 percent of people over age 65, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

So it's important for families to discuss this difficult subject, said Kari Berit of Red Wing, author of "The Unexpected Caregiver: How Boomers Can Keep Mom & Dad Active, Safe and Independent."

"If we're not talking about aging and care giving, we're not dealing with these issues," she said.

The insurance can be pricey; a typical plan might run $1,500 to $2,500 a year or more, depending on your age at the time of purchase, according to Joanne May, long-term care specialist at Advisor Net Insurance in Minneapolis.

But the care it covers is even more expensive. In Minnesota, a private room in a nursing home averages $259 a day, assisted living $4,646 a month and home-health care $26 an hour (all somewhat higher than the national averages).

Because those expenses can quickly burn through a life savings, people buy insurance to preserve their assets. Perhaps more importantly, they do it to spare their children and aging spouses from struggling to provide care themselves.

"Most of us want our kids around, but we don't want them physically -- or financially -- doing the caring," said Debra Newman of Newman Long Term Care in Richfield. "Long-term care insurance is a way of planning -- at a time when we're all healthy; we all have our brains -- that we'll give each other permission to hire somebody to help."

Misconceptions surround this subject. Many people vastly underestimate the cost of long-term care. Some figure Medicaid (called Medical Assistance in Minnesota) will pick up the bills; it will, but only after the patient is down to $3,000 in assets, and some long-term care facilities won't accept residents who lack private insurance. Others assume, incorrectly, that medical or disability insurance will cover long-term care expenses.

Newer insurance plans offer features designed to appeal to reluctant consumers. For example, some plans can be shared by spouses. Some are attached to life-insurance policies, so they'll pay out one way or the other. More than 30 states, including Minnesota, offer tax incentives for purchasing policies.

"If you haven't looked into this in a few years," Newman said, "you need to look again."

Katy Read is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.