RSS icon

Top Stories

Elder-Care Issues Shake the Workplace

October 1, 1999
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Featured Article
There’s no mystery to it. It’s the way we all respond to aging. We denythat it’s going to happen -- to us or to our loved ones. We dismiss the needto talk about it, so we remain private and isolated.

And that’s exactly how we respond to elder-care issues in the workplace. Noone talks about it, no one plans for it, and no one wants it to happen.

But the numbers won’t let us remain complacent for long. Within the nextfive years, 37 percent of U.S. workers will be more concerned about caring foran elderly relative than a child. Already, the disruption to employees’ livescan be devastating. While those with child-care woes may occasionally come towork late or leave early, those responsible for adult care may not be able toget to work at all because these situations are so difficult to anticipate andmanage.

"Elder care is already a big issue and a problem that will growdramatically in the coming decades," says Diane Piktialis, vice presidentat Boston-based Ceridian Performance Partners, a leading employee-benefits firm."One of the problems is that it isn’t the kind of issue employees talkabout much in the workplace. As a society, we don’t plan for aging. And aslong as our parents are healthy, we deny that we’re ever going to face theproblem, so they take on crisis proportions."

It’s important for HR to understand employees’ needs, and provideresources to help them through these painful times. With the right planning andresources in place, employees will be better prepared to handle elder-careresponsibilities.

No one plans for these crises. Indeed, lost productivity due to elder-careresponsibilities costs companies over $11.4 billion per year, according to TheConference Board, a company based in New York City. In fact, the University ofPennsylvania calculated the loss to business at a whopping $33 billion -- forAlzheimer’s Disease alone. It’s a problem that will only become more severe.Today, there are more than 40 million Americans over the age of 65, and thosenumbers will increase dramatically by 2010, as American baby boomers (bornbetween the years of 1946 and 1962) reach 65 years old, according to theAmerican Association of Retired People.

Anguish causes loss of productivity
Elder care can have more devastating effects than child care on an employee’sability to contribute fully. Employers are aware of that, with 94 percent ofthem believing that the impact of caregiving will be increasingly important overthe next five years, according to The Conference Board’s study, "Jugglingthe Demands of Dependent Care." Despite that, only 30 percent offer anyelder-care programs (according to Work/Life Benefits, an Orange County,California-based consulting firm).

The concerns are different than child care; the issues are more complicated.Interruptions for aging parents are more sudden, more stressful and moreemergency-driven. Child-care interruptions, even if they’re emergencies, maynot have the same impact. "It’s the difference between the babysitter notbeing available, and your parent having a stroke," points out DeborahParkinson, research associate for The Conference Board, and author of TheConference Board’s report. Moreover, there are such different elder-careneeds, ranging from simply having to help parents with the groceries, toactively helping them recover from a serious illness.

One Tuscon, Arizona-based employee shares her story:

I was working for General Dynamics (which is now Raytheon, a Missile SystemsCompany based in Tucson, Arizona). I had a newborn baby, a 10-year-old daughterand a 13-year-old stepdaughter when my father-in-law died and my mother-in-lawplunged into a dark depression. The incident kicked off what was later diagnosedas Alzheimer’s disease. It was 1985, and she came to live with us.

During the first year, she was going to an adult day-care center in theopposite direction of work. I would wake up at 4:30 so I could be at work by7:30 a.m.

There were days after the disease progressed when I had to feed her and batheher. In the morning, I’d get her ready, and lots of times, she would tear offher diaper and get back into her pajamas, and we’d have to start all overagain. I was a nervous wreck by the time I got to work. It would take me over anhour just to settle down and stop thinking about it.

At that time, General Dynamics didn’t offer any dependent-care services toemployees. Services existed that we never knew about. I spent lots of timetrying to ferret out what was available.

Elder care is not like child care. Your situation can change from day to day,and you don’t know what to expect. We got no guidance and we made seriousfinancial mistakes. I spent a lot of time on the phone during work hours becausethat’s when the agencies are open. Then I had to take a day off work to gether enrolled in the new place. I had to spend more time off work to meet withsocial services people just to get information.

There came a point when I became clinically depressed.

Anne Serra
Segment Administrator
Work and Family Strategies
Raytheon Missile Systems Co. Tucson, Arizona

Anne Serra’s emotional state and loss of productivity are not unusualcharacteristics of the onset of elder care. What is unusual is her response. Atthe time of these personal events, she was corporate manager of specialprojects, charged with investigating employee needs. Elder care became one ofthem. Her anguish taught her firsthand the advantages of being prepared for anypossibility. Her pain showed her that elder-care programs are critical.

Instead of succumbing to depression, Serra turned her energy towarddeveloping programs for her employee population. Now, as segment adviser forwork and family strategies at Raytheon, she’s in charge of programs thataffect 40,000 individuals. She says, "I focus on education because younever know what things are going to pop up. If you’re prepared, you won’thave to make a decision in a crisis that will haunt you for years."

Raytheon offers a wide range of programs now: resources and referrals(R&R) through Westport, Connecticut-based Dependent Care Connections (DCC),a seminar series, and a videotaped seminar series for people who can’t attendthe seminars. The R&R helped Serra create a family resource library thatincludes books, videos and other resources on diseases that affect the aged,care giving, finances and myriad other areas. Serra also started the Elder-CareAgency Fair, where agencies from around the community talk to employees aboutthe services they provide.

According to DCC, the cost for running an elder-care program depends on thecompany size and the services provided. For example, a program that includesresource kits, a resource library, and dependent-care fairs, can run as low as$1 to $2 per employee per month.

Though Serra doesn’t have to be convinced, she tracks figures for return oninvestment (ROI) for the referral program. In 1997, Raytheon had 12 percent useof the service, which saved the company more than $300,000 because employees whoused these services enhanced their productivity and were less distracted. (Andthat doesn’t take into account the ROI of enhanced recruitment or saving moneyby averting attrition.)

"If I’d had a service like the agencies we have in place now,"says Serra, "I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. We would have had allher papers in order when we came in the first time instead of having to comeback countless times because we didn’t have this or that. We would have knownwhat to expect. It would have made my life so much easier."

Services enhance employee empowerment
To complicate the elder-care situation further, our society is mobile andmany children don’t live near their parents. Seven million Americans providecare to someone whom lives at least one hour away, according to the NationalCouncil on Aging. Care giving, whether from near or far, can be exhausting andoverwhelming. Organizations that decipher their employees’ needs and provideservices to help their employees address these crucial issues enable workers tobe active on their own behalf and tackle the situation when it hits them.

An East Coast executive explains how she got support:

In November 1996, my father was found wandering outside one morning. He waseventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My parents and three sisters live inBuffalo, but everyone (including my mother) works. (I have two young childrenand a husband who is a lawyer and works long hours.) We wanted to keep [father]at home and care for him there. It was very emotional, and I didn’t want toaccept the situation.

We didn’t know very much about the disease. The doctors had told my momthat she should begin to think about looking at their situation for long-termneeds, in case he needed to go into a nursing home at some point. They said theydidn’t need it yet, but that she should start to prepare and maybe contact alawyer to be sure everything was in order.

It’s hard to see your parents with any form of illness. It’s difficult toaccept that they’re getting older, so I spent a lot of time trying to figureout what I could do. How could I help? Since I live in New Jersey, I had tofigure out what I could do to help from a distance.

I knew that we had a resource-and-referral service at Coach [through New YorkCity-based Harris Rothenberg, International], and they were able to give me someof the information I needed. I told them about our situation, and they providedme with information about support groups, attorneys, what type of information Ishould be going to an attorney for, and what else our family could do to copewith the disease. They would also follow up and contact me to see if there wasanything else they could do, and to be sure the information they sent me wassatisfactory. I had one contact person, so whenever I had questions, I wouldcall and ask that person.

I put together a checklist of things that we needed to do, and I sent e-mailsto my sisters and brother about what was left to do. I felt as if I was able tohelp my family learn about the disease and begin to cope with it -- even thoughI wasn’t living there.

Cherena Walker
James/Walker International
(an executive search firm)
Passaic Park, New Jersey

Cherena Walker was one of the lucky ones. Her former company (where she wasdirector of recruiting and diversity), Coach Leatherware, is a division ofChicago-based Sara Lee Corporation, a recognized leader in the area of dependentcare, and a company listed on the Working Mother "100 Best Companies forWorking Mothers" list. Sara Lee is a decentralized organization thatincludes more than 30 other brands such as Playtex, Hanes, and Hillshire Farm.The company attempts to offer its divisions best practices companywide.

Each division conducts a needs assessment to determine the specificrequirements of its group and then tries to implement it. On an ongoing basis,all the divisions do opinion surveys, which incorporate many questions relatedto work and family and other diversity topics. This is one way they can assessthe specific needs of the locations.

For example, one division in North Carolina has put together its owncompendium of community resources for elder care because its population hasexpressed that need. On the other hand, Sara Lee’s corporate office indowntown Chicago provides sick child care because its constituents haveexpressed the need for that. Most divisions have referral services, but withdifferent emphases. "These initiatives are driven from the top -- from theChairman," says Laurie David, executive director, management planning anddevelopment for Sara Lee Corporation. "They are part of empowering theworkforce and allowing them to balance work and family life. It allows people tobe able to contribute at their maximum talent level."

Flexibility and manager support lessen employees’ struggles
Again, because most people think of their parents as vital people -- and theones who took care of them -- they aren’t prepared for the reality of takingcare of them. Yet the average amount of time devoted to care giving by thesealready-employed individuals is about 20 hours a week. This is apparent inemployee survey after employee survey, in which individuals request flexiblehours for elder-care issues and supervisory training that helps managers allowemployees to take advantage of the flexibility.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is meant to provide somerelief, but allows only 12 weeks per calendar year of unpaid leave for care ofan immediate family member (parent child or spouse) with a serious healthcondition.

An Arizona supervisor talks about the importance of a supportive manager:

My mother has been living by herself since my father died in 1987. Then shehad a stroke that left her with some impairments. I’m an only child, so there’sno one else to deal with this.

When she was released from the hospital, I contacted ourresource-and-referral provider [Tempe, Arizona-based Summa Associates].Theyhelped me set up meals-on-wheels as well as in-home care. Everything had beenfine until recently, when her when problems became more severe. She got sick andwas dizzy all the time. It became clear to me that she shouldn’t live alone.

Summa Associates gave me the names of five nursing facilities. They also toldme where I could take her for a full evaluation of her needs. I moved my motherinto one of the homes because the people were very good. Unfortunately, mymother bolted after two weeks and refused to stay there any longer. She wouldn’tlisten to me, or anyone else.

I would find one situation that seemed to work and then after a little whileit would become unacceptable for my mother.

I was lucky because my supervisor was understanding. He is an only son whohad dealt with a sick parent for a while. He understood when I said that Ineeded to take care of something; that I was taking advantage of the city’sflexible policies to help me minimize the time I was going to have to be awayfrom work.

Mel Ruska
City of Mesa, Arizona
Operations Supervisor for Mesa Community Conference Center

Clearly, manager support is important. To ensure that, managers need trainingto see the bottom-line value of providing employees with flexibility andservices to meet their needs. If you talk with people who have elder-careresponsibilities, you see that what really helps is the flexibility in theirschedules, whether it’s so they can wait at home until the home aide arrives,or whether it’s to be able to drop off the parent at an adult day-careprogram. Extending flexibility to encompass these duties is very important.

It’s also helpful if managers can recognize when an employee is strugglingwith an elder-care problem. If employees won’t bring it up, managers can helpalleviate some of the stress by opening up discussion about some of thework-related behavior they might have noticed. This could be decreasedproductivity, absenteeism, an increased need for personal time off, etc. A feworganizations are considering formal training, but most do it informally,encouraging managers about the benefits.

Helping employees be aware of flex-time reduces unexpected absences and lostproductivity. "Any time you get into the dependent-care arena, managementsays, ‘Tell me about the bottom line -- what am I going to get out of it,’"says Jody Topping, employee-benefits supervisor for the City of Mesa."Studies have shown that when you offer these types of programs, youremployees are more productive and happier."

Topping’s experience at the City of Mesa underscores that statement. Theexistence of these programs -- and supervisors’ acceptance of them -- allowflexibility so people can attend to critical family responsibilities during thework day, which makes for a happier, more productive employee. Indeed, the Cityhas a very low turnover rate of 3 percent.

Communication assures use of programs
While flexibility may be the most far-reaching single initiative anorganization can provide, other activities are also important -- such as lettingemployees know what information is available, having people come into theworkplace to speak about elder-care options, offering phone consultations withgerontologists, or surveying employees to find out what they think their needswill be in the future. However, these support tools are only helpful ifemployees know assistance is available.

A Michigan-based bank employee talks about finding in-home care:

My grandfather passed away two years ago, so my parents took my grandmotherin. She’s 84. We kept her for two years at my parents’ house. They bothwork, and I work and have children, and nobody understood her disease [Alzheimer’s].I didn’t know what to do. I have seen my parents falling apart, and it wasn’thelping Grandma that they couldn’t handle her situation.

I had received information about my company’s resource-and-referralprogram, and called them for help. They helped me follow up on all kinds ofthings, like what to look for if you have a private person come in, and how tointerview them. Now we have someone who comes into the home and takes care ofher during the day, while my parents are working. There were all types ofoptions to choose from. The company also has a service that showed what kind ofbenefits my insurance offers to help toward this. It sent a list of differentgroups I could choose from, and how much the insurance covered on each group.

My grandmother will have to go into a nursing home very soon. She reallyneeds to be watched. Some days she is as normal as you and I -- other days aremore difficult. On several occasions, she got up and put a coffee filter in thetoaster and caught it on fire. She does things like that right out of the blue.

I got involved [with my grandmother’s care] because I knew services wereavailable through my company. Something had to be done, and nobody was doinganything, so I had to take that step. I had to look out for my parents. I didn’tknow where else to turn. My parents were going through a nightmare.

Donna Fulgenti
Savings Counselor
Standard Federal Bank
(subsidiary of ABN AMRO Group)

Troy, Michigan

Donna Fulgenti is certainly not alone. Elder care has become amultigenerational concern. "I tell all of my managers when we talk aboutwork/life issues and flexibility, ‘If you don’t think elder-care issues aregoing to affect you, think again,’" says Kathy Short, vice president anddirector of work/life programs for Chicago-based ABN AMRO Group. She’s theindividual who oversees the programs Fulgenti uses. "Your employees aregoing to have to deal with these issues. They don’t believe they’re evergoing to be responsible for elder care. They’re in major denial. [When ourparents die,] we hope they’ll die in their sleep. But the likelihood is greatthat we will all have some level of elder care to do."

Ask Short and she’ll tell you that communication of programs is uppermoston her mind. She and her associates create formal and informal communicationopportunities. She also writes a bimonthly newsletter in which they highlightsuccess stories of flexible work arrangements and DCC, the company’sresource-and-referral agency. They discuss current research, discounts atchildcare centers, and other important information regarding work/life balance.

In addition, they request employees to send them e-mail questions regardingany work/life issue. The bank also rents out Great America Amusement Park once ayear as a work/life-marketing day, where they distribute wallet-sized cards ofthe resource-and-referral provider as well as their EAP.

"It’s really so much of raising awareness," Short says. "Itis more than just a nice thing to do, it is a business issue."

Her advice: "Be ready to talk about how it helps the organization andthe individual, and keep talking about it. People are afraid to talk about it.So the company should talk about it, then write articles about it. Offerprograms and let people know it’s OK if you have the situation. Tell us so wecan help you."

Workforce, October 1999, Vol. 78, No. 10, pp. 58-67-- Subscribenow!

Recent Articles by Charlene Marmer Solomon

Comments powered by Disqus

Hr Jobs

View All Job Listings