Support for Aging Parent Care Is Looming Workplace Issue

More than 44 million Americans are caring for an aging relative and 29 million of these are employed, according to the nonprofit National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2008, “54 percent of the work force will be involved in caring for an older person,” the AARP Bulletin says.

Turnover is high among these workers, many of whom are sandwiched between two generations who need care -- their young children and their aging parents.

According to a report published by NAC and AARP, “57 percent of workers have to go in late, leave early or take time off to care for a loved one. Six percent give up work entirely.”

Faced with the loss of worker productivity, many businesses that already have family friendly policies are beginning to focus on the distinct problems workers face when caring for elderly relatives. Companies offer seminars and contract with employee assistance programs like LifeCare, Inc. in Westport, Conn., a 24/7 helpline that directs callers to gerontologists, financial planners and legal advisers, according to wfaa.com.

Freescale Semiconductor of Austin, Texas, has contracted with LifeCare, wfaa.com says. Because the service gives employees peace of mind, “we see this as a productivity tool,” said Sandi Aitken, benefits manager.

Fannie Mae, the giant mortgage company, employs a full-time, on-site geriatric social worker at their Washington, D.C. headquarters. The social worker advises employees on eldercare resources and services, provides counseling and helps with housing options – even phone calls, the AARP Bulletin says.

But a recent study by psychologists Eliza Pavalko and Kathryn Henderson, funded by the National Institute on Aging and reported by seniorjournal.com, concluded that only unpaid family leave made a significant difference to caregivers. The study, published in the journal Research on Aging, said, however, that flexible hours and paid vacation and sick time helped 50 percent of women workers, overall.

Caregiving for elderly relatives presents unique demands, the authors say. “Unlike the care of children, which follows a fairly predictable time schedule. . . care for ill or disabled spouses or parents is unpredictable and may take place over a short or long period of time. The need for care may . . . involve daily contact or it may involve the long-distance management of health care. . . . Unlike caring for children . . . the amount and intensity of care work increase over the course of the care episode.”

Employees need to feel comfortable about taking time off, experts say, according to wfaa.com. Tom Donaldson, a service delivery manager at Microsoft in Irving, Texas, says that his own experience of caring for his 89-year-old father helped him to relate to his employees’ needs. Donaldson used sick leave and vacation time to care for his father during a medical setback and to make arrangements to move him to an assisted living facility.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with 50 employees or more to grant up to 12 week of unpaid leave and guarantee jobs, but it doesn’t help workers who cannot afford to lose their paychecks, townonline.com says. California’s family leave program, paid for by a payroll deduction, provides paid leave for six weeks, at 55 percent of an employee’s salary but does not mandate job protection. One percent of California’s workers have taken advantage of the program since it began less than two years ago.

The Massachusetts State Senate will go further, townonline.com says. The Massachusetts initiative raises the standard deduction for dependents under age 12 and over age 65 and provides 12 weeks of family leave with full salary, up to $750 a week, with job protection. Benefits would be funded by employee premiums through a family trust fund administered by Massachusetts Office of Workforce Development. Analysts estimate that workers would pay an average of $2.50 per week for the benefit.


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