A significant portion of those in the workforce are providing eldercare to aging family members. Between 25 to 35 percent of all workers report that they are currently providing, or have recently provided, care to someone 65+. Among baby boomer caregivers (those born between 1946-1964), an estimated 60 percent are working full or part-time. Working caregivers often suffer work-related difficulties due to their dual caregiving roles. Among working caregivers caring for a family or friend aged 65+, two-thirds report having to rearrange their work schedule, decrease their hours or take an unpaid leave in order to meet their caregiving responsibilities.Difficulties due to work and caregiving are even higher among those caring for someone with dementia.
Employed caregivers tend to be younger and are responsible for three or four generations. It may take time to adjust work and family duties. Barriers in the community (office hours, poor accessibility for people with disabilities, etc.) can also create problems. In a recent survey nearly two-thirds of caregivers listed eldercare benefits in the workplace as their most pressing concern, trumping such evergreen healthcare issues as cost of care, patients rights and insuring the uninsured.
The issue of eldercare benefits has become especially important to women, since they make up approximately 72 percent of the caregivers in the United States. Nearly half of those women are raising children under the age of 18 while concurrently caregiving. This group is commonly referred to as the “sandwich generation” and is made up of those folks who are caught between taking care of both their parents and their children simultaneously. Working “female caregivers” are said to suffer a particularly high level of economic hardships due to their caregiving roles. Women caregivers are likely to spend 12 years out of the workforce raising children and caring for an older relative or friend.One recent study found that women who had assumed caregiver roles during their working years were 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty when they became elderly compared to women who had not been caregivers during their lifetime. In addition, studies have found that women caregivers handle the most difficult caregiving tasks (i.e., bathing, toileting and dressing) when compared with their male counterparts who are more likely to help with finances. Female caregivers are also more likely than males to suffer from anxiety, depression, and other symptoms associated with emotional stress due to caregiving. Indeed, eldercare is quickly catching up to childcare as the “hot button issue” facing female employees today and they want to know how their employers will assist them in the future.
Fortunately, corporate America has begun to recognize these trends. Eldercare has become one of the fastest growing work-family employee benefits to emerge in the past decade. Estimates by MetLife put the aggregate costs of caregiving in lost productivity to U.S. business at about $11.4 billion per year. In response to this, and subsequent research, about a third of Fortune 500 companies now offer ‘eldercare benefits’ above and beyond flextime.
When a caregiver is employed outside the home, various problems can develop. The work place may not be responsive to their situation. This can create problems with office hours, vacation, sick leave, personal leave and other benefits. So, what exactly can an employee ask their employer to do to make their eldercare responsibilities easier? The benefits requested usually include some combination of the following:
Unpaid leave: All employees in the U.S. working for companies with 50 or more employees are eligible for this benefit under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. This piece of legislation guarantees workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, with retention of full medical and dental benefits. But the trend among nearly a quarter of Fortune 500 companies is to offer even more to their employees. Some companies, for instance, allow workers to take up to one year of unpaid leave for every two years of employment; most receive full medical and dental for the first six months and their seniority and jobs are guaranteed upon their return.
Referral services: These services link employees with a range of eldercare services nationwide, making it possible to arrange for the care of a parent across town or across the country. Referrals are the most common approach to eldercare assistance and are offered by nearly all employers with eldercare programs. Referral services help employees find everything from check writing services to bonded help for at-home care.
Eldercare reimbursement: Similar to childcare reimbursement, this benefit helps employees manage financial obligations. A percentage of the employee’s paycheck is automatically deducted and set aside, then reimbursed at the end of the year.
Long-term-care insurance (LTC): LTC insurance is becoming an increasingly common benefit – it was offered by about 25 percent of employers with eldercare programs last year. Since the beneficiaries of long-term-care insurance can vary, sometimes it can be extended to parents or even parents-in-law.
Counseling: Usually offered through an employee-assistance program, counseling is available for the employee and family members affected by caregiving stress, some companies even extend this benefit to the aging parent.
Flexible spending account: This benefit eases the strain of paying the medical expenses for an older person in your care. From your pretax income, money is automatically set aside and reimbursed upon receipt of health-related expenses.
Even if benefits exist on paper, most employees say their supervisor’s attitude and behavior also influences the usage of eldercare benefits. Some managers send mixed signals if employees try to use the benefit; the success of eldercare programs in the workplace is tied directly to managerial encouragement and supportiveness from the work environment. Increasingly, companies are offering resource materials, counseling, and training programs to help caregivers.
If demographic projections and increased life expectancies bear out in the next 25 years, we can expect to have the largest senior population in U.S. history living longer than any other previous generation. For most of us, this is a good thing – it means we will be spending more years with our loved ones than ever before. For others, it is a mixed blessing that comes with its share of difficulties. Now that corporate America is paying attention, perhaps we can reduce those burdens.
ALEXIS ABRAMSON, Ph.D. is cited as America’s leading, impassioned champion for the dignity and independence of those over 50. Abramson is the author of two highly acclaimed books — The Caregivers Survival Handbook and Home Safety for Seniors. For more information go to www.doctoralexis.com.