Eldercare is an important issue for many members of today's work force, and is thus a relevant matter for employers to study as well. Analysts contend that many businesses lose valuable production from the estimated 30 percent of working Americans who have to contend with the needs of elderly parents and other relatives, and they point out that America's changing demographics are likely to make this an even more important issue for employers and employees in the coming years. "Eldercare is the next big wave washing over the workplace," wrote Jill Mazullo in Minneapolis-St. Paul CityBusiness. "Many workers are faced with taking on caregiving duties for an aging parent, spouse, or sibling who needs assistance with grocery shopping, medical visits, bathing, and more. Some caregivers spend upwards of 20 hours a week with a family member in need. The emotional toll is difficult to quantify, particularly when care for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease or dementia is involved. Add that to a full-time job, and you've got a career crisis in the making."
Eldercare receives far less publicity than does childcare, another very important issue to workers. But as Elise Feuerstein Karras noted in Small Business Reports , "In many ways, eldercare is more complex than childcare because it covers such a wide range of needs. Many elderly people need assistance with routine tasks such as eating, dressing, bathing and obtaining medical care. But as adults, they also need to pay their bills, access Social Security benefits and deal with legal matters such as estate planning. Employees may have to help with these tasks or arrange for others to do it—sometimes for relatives who live far away." Karras added that the level of dependency that older relatives have for caregivers also increases with time, while the opposite is true of childcare. Finally, she pointed out that caregivers for elderly parents and relatives often have to tread a fine, and sometimes exhausting line between diplomacy and control: "The balance of authority between employees and their parents can make the [eldercare] arrangements awkward. An employee with children can simply make any necessary arrangements because he or she has the authority to do so. But the grown son or daughter of an elderly person must obtain the parent's consent before arranging for care."
In many instances, obligations associated with providing eldercare can become a considerable drain on an employee's productivity. According to a 1999 study by the Met Life Mature Market Institute, 16 percent of survey respondents indicated that had to quit their jobs entirely in order to meet the needs of elderly parents (the percentage is even greater in businesses that have a high percentage of employees who are women, society's traditional caregivers). Many other respondents indicated that they passed up job promotions, training opportunities, or career-advancing projects because of their caregiving obligations. When these sorts of situations develop, small business owners and other employers are faced with the loss or diminished value of a productive, trained employee and—in cases where those obligations force a departure—additional costs associated with finding and training a replacement.
But the obligations associated with eldercare are felt in other ways, too. Workers who provide assistance to their elderly parents or other relatives are likely to take off several days each year to attend to routine care issues. The Met Life survey confirmed this condition, noting that 64 percent of respondents used sick days or vacation time in order to address eldercare issues. Some employers might comfort themselves by observing that those vacation days are not unexcused absences, but they should recognize that losing vacation time for this reason can have a negative impact on employee morale and, ultimately, performance. Moreover, partial absenteeism—late arrivals, long lunch breaks, early departures, etc.—can take a heavy toll as well. But Tibbet L. Speer contended in American Demographics that an even bigger problem for employers are "the workday interruptions faced by caregivers who talk on the phone with loved ones and service providers. This situation can arise even with employees who don't physically care for parents or whose parents live elsewhere. Estimated at one hour per week per caregiver, this factor is the biggest drain of all on employee productivity."
Many small business owners operate under the assumption that they can provide little assistance to employees who are grappling with eldercare issues. In reality, however, business experts say that both small and large companies can take several relatively inexpensive measures to help their staffers out and, in the long run, help them reach or return to high levels of productivity. Indeed, "by helping employees balance work and family responsibilities, elder care benefits can have a positive effect on employee attendance and productivity," observed HR Magazine. "Elder care benefits also support recruitment and retention efforts."
Possible eldercare benefits feasible for small businesses include the following:
Information services . A very inexpensive way in which employers can help employees with eldercare problems is to offer resource and referral hotlines for such services and subjects as adult day care, nursing home evaluation, insurance issues, and "meals on wheels." Finding such information can be a time-consuming process for employees, and the establishment of a small in-house resource center that contains contact information can save workers significant hassles. In addition, many resource and referral services offer one-on-one counseling and/or seminars, many of which can be arranged to take place at the business's facilities. These seminars and counseling sessions can provide employees with important information on such diverse issues as nursing home care, Medicare and Medicaid, legal issues, and Alzheimer's disease.
Incorporate Into Existing Assistance Programs . Many companies have chosen to integrate eldercare benefits in with existing employee assistance plans.
Flexible Work Schedules. Employers have a variety of options from which to choose here, including job sharing, compressed work weeks, and work-at-home arrangements. In addition, some small business owners have loosened vacation and sick day policies, blending them together into so-called personal days, to better accommodate employees with eldercare obligations.
Financial Benefits. Employers should consider setting up dependent care assistance programs (DCAPs) for their employees. Under this plan, employees who have elderly dependents living with them can gain assistance in paying for various eldercare expenses. Funds are regularly withheld from the paychecks of participating employees, who then bill the plan and receive reimbursements for eldercare expenses. "The result," noted Karras, "is that employees don't pay income or Social Security taxes on the DCAP funds. Your company saves as well because it won't owe Social Security and unemployment taxes on the money they set aside." Business consultants note, however, that businesses that set up DCAP plans do run into administration expenses, whether they choose to administer the program themselves or hire an outside firm to do so.
Another trend that is shaping the way in which employees and employers approach eldercare is the increased popularity of intergenerational care facilities. These programs allow working parents who also have obligations to care for their own parents to place both children and elderly relatives in a single facility, where they will be cared for. Given the steady growth of women in the work place and the success that many hospitals, child care centers, and nursing homes have had with intergenerational care programs, many analysts believe that the availability of such facilities will continue to grow over the next number of years, especially in regions in which competition for labor talent is intense. Indeed, demographic trends would seem to guarantee the continued growth of intergenerational care facilities. A study in the early 1990s by the National Council on Aging, for example, determined that approximately 40 percent of the American work force was providing care for both children and elders. Such statistics indicate that businesses seeking to attract and retain top talent will not only examine child care assistance options in greater depth, but will also factor the eldercare issue into their analysis of options with increasing frequency.
Employees and employers can turn to a variety of sources for information on dealing with the many financial, medical, and personal aspects of eldercare. Local hospitals, churches, and agencies on aging are often good sources of information on eldercare issues. In addition, several national organizations maintain a variety of services and information on the subject. Notable organizations include the American Association of Retired Persons, the Alzheimer's Association, and the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. Another good source of information is the Eldercare Locator, a federally funded hotline operated by the National Association of State Units on Aging and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
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Karras, Elise Feuerstein. "Affordable Eldercare Benefits." Small Business Reports. November 1994.
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SEE ALSO: Career and Family