Caregivers for Elderly Parents

For companies nationwide, the adult child of elderly parents is today's version of the 1980s 'working mom.'

Three decades ago, the issue of childcare was thrust into the national spotlight when American households shifted to allow both spouses to enter the workforce. It presented human resources professionals with a major issue that has since been addressed.

But now companies face a new challenge when it comes to retaining valued workers. As Americans live longer, more and more are developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Their needs have become so profound that it is taking a toll on child caregivers, who are believed to make up at least 25 percent of the U.S. workforce.

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The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) sounded an alarm about this emerging problem more than 10 years ago. In its 2003 Eldercare Survey, 25 percent of nearly 300 human resource professionals surveyed said that they provided for employees who needed time off to care for parents. But in the same survey, 94 percent admitted that they had no formal policies for doing so.

The group warned in its report that the issue of workers caring for parents eventually would “severely impact production, retention, and employee satisfaction” if not dealt with. “Lacking a formal policy, different managers within an organization may apply informal benefits differently.”

One Caregiver's Story

Lisa Horowitz, CLU, ChFC, a broker and consultant in New York, has been working in insurance and financial planning for 25 years. She told Healthline that little has changed in the past decade.

“I have business owners and employers who are faced with the increased frequency of employees taking time off and/or being distracted during work hours with the ongoing care of elderly family members,” she said. “On the other side, I speak almost daily with clients who have elderly relatives they are trying to care for and it is causing them to call in sick, leave early, and in general, not be as productive as they could be at their work.”

Phyllis Peters, a teacher in New York who wrote the book “Untethered: A Caregiver's Tale,” cared for five relatives, all with dementia.

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Along with her mother, Peters cared for three aunts who did not have children of their own. Although she has siblings, she does not have children like they do. “I was the most available,” she told Healthline. “My boss was nice enough to let me go when I needed to. But that doesn't mean I didn't have to make it up.”

Her book, while humorous and uplifting, comes from a very difficult experience. Working late many nights after helping her relatives during the day didn't make for an easy life. “Then you would go home and get the calls at 2 a.m. saying, 'We have your uncle here who was walking down the street and didn't know who he was,'” she said. 

What's Needed From Employers

Peters said that caregivers in the workplace need help navigating the available resources. Families need to begin talking early about caring for the elderly before a crisis erupts. Even looking for a care facility, if it comes to that, can be a grueling process, she said. 

Jody Gastfriend, Vice President of Senior Care Services for Care.com, said she saw a 50 percent increase in 2013 in the number of companies who chose to purchase a senior care benefit from Care.com. Care.com offers an array of services to help companies provide employees with help, from assistance in vetting care facilities to caregiver counseling.

Catch-all employee assistance programs won't cut it for caregivers, Gastfriend told Healthilne. “EAPs were a grab bag of all things related to employee wellness: substance abuse, mental health, child care, the elderly. They didn't have providers trained in senior care and nobody ended up using it.” she said.

Another company called Bright Horizons also markets elder care services to employers. They have also seen an uptick in business.

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Like Care.com, Bright Horizons offers what's known as back-up services. If an emergency arises for an employee's parent, Bright Horizons will arrange for vetted help to handle it. Employees, on average, pay a $6 hourly co-pay—far below the typical cost of such care.

Since 2011, the company has seen a 14 percent annual increase on average in the demand for this service. More than 500 companies subscribe to it, including several Fortune 500 companies, such as Home Depot. 

But such benefits remain extremely rare. In its 2013 survey of benefits, SHRM reported that only about 8 percent of companies offer elder referral services. About 2 percent offer back-up services. 

Trillions of Dollars Lost 

The cost of caring for elderly parents is staggering, both for employers and caregivers.

In 2006, absenteeism due to caregiving resulted in losses of more than $33 billion to employers, according to a MetLife study. Their 2011 survey showed a loss of $3 trillion to caregivers, who miss out on an average of $300,000 in total earnings, retirement, and Social Security benefits while caregiving.

Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Janssen have helped support a program developed in recent years called ReACT, or Respect A Caregiver's Time. ReACT provides training to front-line managers at companies nationwide on how to better understand the needs of a caregiving employee.

ReACT serves more than 1 million employees in more than 30 companies and non-profit organizations. 

Sally Susman, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Pfizer, said the population of Americans 65 and older is expected to more than double by 2050 to 90 million. “It really is a silver tsunami that we have to deal with,” she said.

Susman said individuals are much better prepared for the reality of caregiving than institutions. While not minimizing the difficult work a caregiver performs, many people have found “the opportunity to personally care for someone, not just send somebody to the hospital but to care for another person, to be one of the most meaningful and humanizing experiences you can have,” she said.

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Why Humor Is a Must 

Peters agrees. In her book she tempers the seriousness of caring for someone with dementia with a healthy dose of humor. 

She recalled an incident when she went to check on Walter, the husband of one of her aunts. She found him asleep with a blow dryer running under his sheets. “I said, 'Uncle Walter, what are you doing?' He said, 'I was cold.'”

“The fire hazard alone is mind boggling,” she said. 

Peters said she is donating all the proceeds from sales of her book to Alzheimer's research organizations. “When there is a cure for Alzheimer's, there will be a cure for caregivers,” is her motto. 

“Humor has got to get you through this. Truly, you have nothing else," she said. "You can cry all you want, but you still have to clean up the diaper, and take the blow drier from between the sheets.” 

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