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Elder Care Growing Concern For Employers

By: Robert E. O’Toole

The picture of today’s family is changing. It no longer is two parents, three or four children, and a surviving grandparent or two. With many families choosing to only have one child and the elderly living much longer, once the children move into university and beyond, the focus of the caregiver may shift to their aging parents, creating new challenges for the employer of these caregivers. Robert E. O’Toole, president of Informed Decisions, Inc., a U.S. company specializing in corporate elder life planning, looks at the impact of caring for aging parents.

During the 1970s and 1980s, employers began to recognize the need to offer a more comprehensive package of benefits to their employees. With the unprecedented influx of women into the workforce, the challenge of juggling family responsibilities with the demands of the workplace gave rise to a more comprehensive array of ‘family friendly’ benefits.

At that time, one of the most frequent needs expressed by employees was for help finding affordable child daycare. What was once offered by only large and cutting edge employers, now has become a commonplace item on the menu of employee benefits.

A growing body of research, ranging from scholarly studies to annual surveys by major business publications, is now calling attention to the aging of the American society and the impact this is having on the huge number of baby boomers that dominate many companies, government agencies, and healthcare settings. Even those industries with a large percentage of younger workers, such as the various high technology industries, are beginning to feel the pinch.

Just as the reality of a global economy is becoming a dominant factor for business, the willingness of employees and their families to re-locate is declining due to growing responsibilities to care for elderly and disabled family members closer to home.

More Living Parents

Caregiving responsibilities are proving to be more challenging and stressful than finding childcare for working Americans in the new millennium. Caring for aging parents affects the millions of baby boomers now turning 50 at a rapid pace. The combination of increased longevity and lower birth rates in the ’70s and ’80s has resulted in a new phenomenon of family caregiving.

The average working couple has more living parents than children. In our mobile society, they are more likely to be living far from the aging parent who now needs their help.

Surveys in 1997, 1999, and 2000, sponsored by such groups as the AARP, Fortis Investors, and Metropolitan Life, identify the cost to U.S. employers in lost productivity and other costs associated with caring for elderly family members as exceeding $29 billion. More than half of Americans have friends or relatives who have needed long-term care and nearly 30 per cent have provided hands-on or personal care assistance, says a survey by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA).

Caregiving takes a heavy toll on work and family life. Among those who have provided hands-on care, 67 per cent reported that it has had a significant impact on their family lives and 41 per cent reported it had a significant impact on their work. More than 10 per cent of those who have provided long-term care assistance said they had given up promotions or jobs as a result.

“It is a difficult tightrope to walk for those who need to provide long-term care assistance,” says Donna Wagner, senior vice-president, NCOA. “Individuals are finding it tough to meet their personal needs and long-term care obligations and must continually make hard choices.”

The impact, however, has a greater affect on women than men. Overall, women in the survey were more likely to have provided hands-on long-term care than men (58 per cent of women, 48 per cent of men) and were more likely to report hardships resulting from the caregiving. Almost half of the female caregivers, 48 per cent, reported a “significant impact” on their work, compared to 32 per cent of male caregivers.

Both men and women said providing care affected their family lives, but more women cited this effect, 73 per cent compared to 60 per cent. And more than twice as many women than men said providing long-term care assistance had a significant impact on their own health, 40 per cent compared to 18 per cent.

‘Very Big Problem’

Women were also more likely to worry about long-term care than men but said they have done less planning for it. Fifty-six per cent of female respondents described longterm care as a “very big problem” compared to 42 per cent of male respondents.

Many caregivers report family conflict and the loss of friends and activities as a result of caregiving. The emotional and physical strains of caregiving often lead to deterioration in the caregiver’s own health. Although caregivers report physical, financial, and family strains associated with caregiving, the most negative consequences of caregiving on caregivers seem to be the emotional strain of caregiver burdens.

Several companies have attempted to provide solutions to stressed out employees and their families. Employers are also increasingly aware of the associated caregiving costs that take the form of lower productivity, reluctance to re-locate, and the loss of workers – especially women – who feel they must resign to care for aging parents. There is concern too about the increased incidence of ‘presenteeism,’ a corollary of absenteeism where the employee, having used up all of their sick leave and vacation time, continues to come to work but is too preoccupied with chronic elder caregiving issues to be very productive.

Many large corporations are now responding to these pressures by retaining the services of ‘Work/Life’ companies to help them to ease the caregiving burdens faced by their employees. The costs of these services, however, make them out of reach for many employers who are struggling to keep up with employee healthcare costs that are rising once again.

Crisis Point

The reluctance of family caregivers to use services for which they are eligible and the preference of caregivers to solve problems on their own present challenges to those trying to provide services to family caregivers. Caregivers who have little time to meet their family, work, and caregiving responsibilities often feel they do not have any time left for support groups or other interventions. Simply locating family caregivers in need of support and getting them to accept such support may prove difficult. Many family caregivers do not seek outside help until they have reached a crisis point.

There are essentially three major ‘stressors’ associated with employed caregivers:

To be effective in reducing the stress of working caregivers and associated lost productivity and morale, work/life eldercare programs must offer solutions that specifically address these three issues, yet at the same time, be affordable for the employer who offers this as a benefit.

One solution, at least in the U.S., is participation in national provider networks. This is a developing process where decentralized networks of strategic partnerships between work, family, and elder and disability programs are forming to provide service without the costs of administering a large central bureaucracy.

Generally all it takes is one call to a toll free call centre staffed by experienced, highly trained professionals. Caregivers can get a customized information kit about resources to meet their specific needs in the community where the help is needed. Local eldercare agencies will also provide onsite educational programs concerning healthcare, legal, and financial issues of aging and longterm care, including access to several toprated, long-term care insurance products.

These networks screen professionals and service providers and require each one to be highly qualified and to meet recognized standards of professional ethics and practice, thereby providing quality assurance to employers and employees.

There are also benefits to elder and disability care professionals. They receive an increased volume of referrals without incurring additional marketing costs. Working caregivers can reach them via a national toll free number as well as through web-based technologies that allow each provider a high degree of visibility that would otherwise be very costly for each provider to replicate.

Eldercare is a daunting challenge but a comprehensive and well co-ordinated network of local service providers and specialists who are willing to offer a prompt and sensitive response, as well as discounts on their services in exchange for the cost savings they gain by participating in a national provider network, can enable employers and their employees to meet this challenge.

Robert E. O’Toole is president of Informed Decisions, Inc., a private company specializing in corporate elder life planning and long-term care insurance.

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