Elder Care Caregiver Stress Goes To Work As Employers Ignore Issue

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

The crisis is the toll that elder care — looking after one’s aging parents — is placing on the nation’s workforce. The U.S. is in the midst of a senior population boom. The more people over the age of 60 in the population than ever before. This population he mothers and fathers of those in the workforce now.

The costs to employers aren’t due to absenteeism — although that is a factor. The biggest cost is the poor physical health of those who must juggle work, family, and looking after parents.

Elder care is stressful for employees
Elder care is stressful for employees

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

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

The bottom line for employers: health care costs are 8% higher for elder care-giving 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, according to AARP Public Policy Institute research.

Although small in number, the AARP cites several cases that cast doubt on employers’ ability to recognize caregivers’ problems.

Elder Care Stress Goes To Work

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”. Sandwich generation employees are responsible for the care both of aging parents and young children.

How big the need for elder care-giving will become “is the $64 million question,” says Donna Wagner of New Mexico State University. Wagner 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 care-giving 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 care giving in the next five years? This generally reveals a range of 35% to 50% or even higher, depending on the workplace being surveyed.”

Elder Care: An Off-The-Radar Problem

However, elder care-giving is currently far down the list of employee issues that employers consider important, according to a Society for Human Resource Management study.

The most common benefit, when offered, are elder care referral services — helping employees navigate the bewildering 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 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. That was down from 16% and 14% respectively, since 2007.

Compared with other benefits elder care-giving far off the radar for employers. Consider that 36% of employers in 2011 offered smoking-cessation programs. Six percent offered onsite nap rooms.

The Burden Of Elder Care Responsibilities

What does care-giving 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

One of the most common early care-giving tasks is running errands, according to Terri Abelar of Aging Solutions, Inc.

Aging Solutions, Inc. is a California consulting and advocacy firm specializing in helping adult children with aging parents.

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.

Doing errand is a way an adult child can take away the car keys without actually doing so.

If there are fewer reasons for aging parents to drive 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.

Let A Third Party Help

Another effective tool is bringing in a neutral third party. A third party helps 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 while still having their needs met. Another aspect of this is to empower the senior parent in non-threatening ways. That way parents don’t feel like their adult children are taking over. This is frequently a sensitive issue.

Later, food preparation and paying bills can begin to consume more of an adult child’s time. Still later, care-giving 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 care-giving 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 stem from when full-time employees attempt to juggle all those tasks on top of work duties.

Elder care-giving 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.

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