Caregiver Stress Goes To Work As Employers Ignore Elder Care Issue

By R.W. Greene— Employers are facing a massive health crisis in coming years–but even if they are aware of the problem, few are doing anything about it.

The crisis stems from the heavy toll that elder care–looking after one’s aging parents– is beginning to place on the nation’s workforce. The U.S. is in the midst of a senior population boom–the mothers and fathers of those in the workforce now–that will translate into more people over the age of 60 in the population than ever before.

The costs to employers aren’t due to absenteeism—although that is a factor. The biggest cost comes from the poor physical health of those who must juggle their job, a family, and looking after mom or dad, all at the same time.

Elder care is stressful for employees

Elder care is stressful for employees

Those who look after the elderlyreport higher stress levels, depression, hypertension and other conditions, a 2010 MetLife study found.

Bad health habits are also more prevalent: male caregiving employees smoke more. Blue-collar caregiving employees of both sexes report higher rates of alcohol use.

The bottom line for employers: health care costs are 8% higher for elder caregiving employees. That translates to an extra $13.4 billion in costs a year nationally.

For some employee sub-groups, the costs are even heavier: 11% higher health costs for blue-collar employees. More than 18% higher health care costs for male employees who are caregivers.

Employer discomfort—or lack of awareness or lack of options—may be reflected in rising numbers of complaints and lawsuits related to employment discrimination, recently the focus of researchers at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Although still small in number, the AARP study cites several cases that don’t inspire confidence in employers’ ability to recognize caregivers’ problems and do something positive.

The stress of elder care inevitably spills over into the workplace.

That stress increases exponentially if an employee is in a so-called generational “sandwich” – responsible for the care both of aging parents and young children.

Just how big the issue will get—how pervasive the need for elder caregiving will become in the workplace—“is the $64 million question,” says Donna Wagner of New Mexico State University, who has written extensively on the topic. “Depending on the source and their implicit goals…the answer is either really high or extra-extra high.”

Wagner estimates that about 15% of employees nationally are looking after an aging relative in some way.

“Future caregiving is somewhat like estimating how long someone will live—imprecise,” Wagner said in an email interview. “Most estimates are based upon [employee] survey data that ask the question, do you expect to be involved in caregiving in the next five years? This generally reveals a range of 35% to 50% or even higher, depending on the workplace being surveyed.”

However, elder caregiving is currently far down the list of employee issues that employers consider important enough to provide as a workplace benefit, according to a study last year by the Society for Human Resource Management.

The most common benefit, when offered at all, has been elder care referral services—helping employees navigate the bewildering array of systems that make up the senior care system itself.

In 2007, more than a fifth of employers offered this benefit. In 2011, the share had dropped to 9%.

Two percent or fewer employers offered related benefits such as counseling on elder care issues, assessments of an aging parent’s living space (important because of the high rate, and high risk, of seniors falling), or onsite elder care fairs.

About 1% offered subsidies for elder care, down from 4% in 2008). Around 11% offered FMLA benefits beyond the federal or state 12-week minimum leave periods (down from 16% and 14% respectively, since 2007).

To get an idea of how far off the radar are elder care benefits for employers, even in the face of the coming demographic storm, consider that 36% of employers in 2011 offered smoking-cessation programs, while 6% offered onsite nap rooms.

The Burden Of Elder Care Responsibilities

What does caregiving for an aging parent require?
For many adult children, as an aging parent’s health and self-sufficiency diminish the tasks begin simply but then ramp becoming more complex and time consuming.

Terri Abelar, Aging Solutions

Terri Abelar, Aging Solutions

According to Terri Abelar of Aging Solutions, Inc., a California consulting and advocacy firm specializing in helping adult children with aging parents, one of the most common early caregiving tasks is running errands.

Deteriorating driving skills are the reason, Abelar says.

That deterioration is one of the earliest and most visible signs that an aging parent needs help. It is also one that they are most reluctant to admit to.

Stopping by the pharmacy or grocery store for an aging parent is one way a worried adult child can begin to take away the car keys without actually physically doing so.

If there are fewer reasons for an aging parent to get in a car—because someone else is running that errand—then the adult child has helped the situation.

“One of the best ways to address issues such as a parent’s driving skills is to find a way to have a couple of discussions that are non-threatening and to offer choices,” Abelar says. Another effective tool is to bring in a neutral third party to work with parents to establish a trusting relationship and help them process everyone’s concerns. They can also work with a geriatric care manager to understand their options and choices while still having their needs met. The other aspect of this is to empower the senior parent in a way that they don’t feel like their adult children are taking over, frequently a sensitive issue.

Later, food preparation and paying bills can begin to consume more of an adult child’s time. Still later, caregiving duties revolve almost exclusively around an aging parent’s medical and health issues.

This can mean spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone with health care bureaucracies. It also means driving to and attending medical appointments.

In many instances adult child caregiving responsibilities come as a shock. New responsibilities come following a crisis such as a fall or a stroke. These new responsibilities require disproportionate amounts of time and attention immediately, says Abelar.

“Again, a care manager can step in and take the burden off of the adult children by coordinating medical and other needs and reporting back to the family. This approach usually finds adult children experiencing a huge sigh of relief.”

The problems for employers, of course, stem from a full-time employee’s attempts to juggle all those tasks on top of work duties.

Elder caregiving is more stressful than other kinds because ultimately, there is only one certain result. The emotional and psychological upheaval involved in the reversal of caregiver roles carries huge weight.

 Related Stories And Resources:

Caregiver Stress Goes To Work

Study Finds Discrimination Against Caregivers Growing

How To Improve State Laws Protecting Working Caregivers

Facts About Working Caregivers

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