How To Care for Elder Care Givers

By Stephen Miller Jun 27, 2008

Caring for an aging parent is one of the most challenging and stressful roles an individual will assume,” said gerontologist and elder care advisor Esther Koch during a her presentation at the 2008 SHRM Annual Conference in Chicago.

Make no mistake, she said, “your employees are increasingly struggling with caring for their elderly parents, and that’s having an impact on productivity, health care costs and your bottom line.”

Koch is president of Encore Management in San Mateo, Calif., which provides elder care advisory services for both individuals and organizations.

Today, 34 million Americans provide care for someone age 50 or older, and an estimated 60 percent of caregivers are employed, she said. Moreover, between 25 percent to 35 percent of all workers report currently or recently providing care for someone 65 or older.

And the time dedicated to care giving increases with the age of the recipient. “The squeeze is on, and it’s a triple-decker sandwich,” with employees dealing with multiple generational issues, Koch said. But as the demands of child care tend to decrease over time, the demands for elder care tend to go up.

“Yesterday’s elder care giver doesn’t exist anymore,” Koch observed. Not too long ago, an elder care provider was likely to be a married, nonworking woman. Today, she’s working. And more men are now caregivers, in part because their working wives aren’t taking care of their in-laws. Yet men are less likely to discuss their struggles with care giving in the workplace.

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Not long ago, an elder care provider was likely to be
a married, nonworking woman. Today, she’s working.

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The nature of care giving also is changing. Today, it often means paying for and supervising care provided by at-home attendants and nurses, often at a considerable distance. That’s a huge expense, and doesn’t alleviate the need for taking an active role checking on care and making decisions that elderly parents can no longer make. When dementia is involved, the challenge is all the more intense, Koch said.

The Business Cost

Not surprisingly, working care givers report depression and a lack of sleep, and 44 percent report that their own health has gotten worse as a result of providing care, driving up their employer’s health care costs.

Elder care givers are also asking to modify work travel, turning down increased responsibilities and refusing overtime. The overall cost of their absenteeism; “presenteeism,” being at work in body but not in mind; workday interruptions; unpaid leave; and related issues is costing businesses $34 billion per year, according to The MetLife Caregiving Cost Study: Productivity Losses to U.S. Business (July 2006), Koch noted.

A Retention Strategy

The personnel loss, at a time when employers are facing a skilled talent shortage, will only be getting worse, Koch observed. Replacing experienced workers can cost at least 50 percent of annual salary in turnover expenses.

Which is why “employers should be looking at elder care as a retention strategy for older workers, and as a way to reduce productivity losses and other costs to the organization.” The benefits of maintaining a stable workforce can exceed the incremental cost of providing a range of elder care benefits, she argued. In fact, “according to AARP, there is a $3 to $14 return for each $1 spent on elder care,” she noted. (See, on the AARP's web site, "How Employers Can Support Working Caregivers").

A Range of Possibilities

These benefits can include flexible scheduling, paid personal leave days, telecommuting, referral services, help with legal and financial issues, information services, geriatric care management (and back-up care), medical decision support, tele-health services, support groups and funeral and bereavement leave. Also, stress management and counseling services shouldn’t be overlooked.

Many of these services can be subsidized, or offered as voluntary benefits paid for by employees at a group-discount rate negotiated by the employer. Employers should also strive to effectively communicate benefits that their employee assistance program (EAP) might already be offering.

Compassion First

But perhaps most important, Koch advised, is training managers to understand and be sensitive to the issues that elder care providers are facing. This especially comes into play regarding end-of-life issues.

“Can your managers be emotionally there for an employee experiencing significant caregiver stress?” Koch asked. “And how will your managers respond to the death of an employee’s parent? These interactions will affect that employee’s loyalty to your company—either positively or negatively.”

If handled right, she added, “you’ll earn an employee’s loyalty for life.”

Stephen Milleris an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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