Future Focus

By Dave Patel Oct 1, 2002
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October 2002, HR MagazineJust A Head, Elder Care

The outlines of a growing workplace issue are emerging in the numbers: Life expectancy in the United States reached a record 76.9 years in 2000 and, because of continuing medical advances, will keep rising. By 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of Americans, or about 70 million people, will be 65 or older. In fact, people 85 or older make up the fastest-growing segment of the older population. Older people not only are living generally healthier lives but also are more independent than they may appear. About 60 percent of people 65 or older live on their own; only 5 percent are in nursing homes.

Longer life and greater independence add up to good news for older Americans, but ultimately they will encounter the limitations associated with aging, and that in turn will directly impact the workplace as more employees begin caring for aging parents or relatives.

Like child care, the needs of elder care center on time, but there the similarities end. For example, the stress for employees dealing with elderly relatives’ health problems or disabilities is different from the pressures felt by employees dealing with children’s school schedules or doctor visits. Moreover, medical emergencies and diagnoses for the elderly often increase time demands and stresses for the caregiver. By one estimate, productivity losses attributable to employees caring for elderly relatives cost U.S. businesses $11 billion per year.

But while age-related health care issues form a big concern for employers, few companies seem to realize the impact that elder care responsibilities could have on their employees. Elder care does not crack the top 10 categories of family-friendly benefits offered by employers, according to the 2002 Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. Elder care is “not on most employers’ radar screens,” according to elder care consultant Nancy Fiedelman of the Aynsley Group, based in McLean, Va.

Expanded elder care benefits for employees, experts say, could include health care and long-term care insurance for aging parents or other relatives, dependent care tax credits in addition to or in lieu of child care tax credits, and sick leave and flextime policies that take into account employees’ elder care responsibilities. It would mean additional financial costs for employers, and it would require that they change a workplace culture that currently does not value elder care as much as it values child care.

But even companies with great elder care benefits and scheduling flexibility can’t cover all the dependent care situations that employees may have to deal with. Some employees may have to leave the workforce entirely, cut back on work hours to gain more flexibility for elder care duties, or transition to more-accommodating careers. All of these options have tremendous implications for a workforce that’s shrinking a bit now and could become much smaller over the long term as the population ages.

Elder care as a workplace issue is now at the stage where child care was 20 to 30 years ago. If elder care follows the same trajectory that child care issues took, HR professionals could find themselves radically restructuring employment benefits policies to accommodate this social change.

For more information on emerging issues, visit SHRM Workplace Trends.

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