Caring for Workers Who Care for Mom

There are nearly 10 million adult children over 50 who are responsible for an aging parent, and that is costing companies up to $34 billion a year due to absenteeism and other issues affecting productivity.

February 21, 2013

While companies have been offering perks and benefits for employees with children for decades, few employers are prepared for the growing demand in elder care services as the number of employees caring for a parent or older relative continues to grow.

There are nearly 10 million adult children over 50 years old responsible for an aging parent—a number that has tripled in the past 15 years, according to one study. And that is costing companies up to $34 billion a year due to absenteeism and other issues affecting productivity, says Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, a nonprofit based in Bethesda, Maryland. Employee care givers also have higher health care costs due to stress and other factors, according to The Best Practices in Workplace Eldercare, a 2012 National Alliance for Caregiving report on corporate elder-care programs and policies.

At the same time there's been a decrease in the number of companies offering such services. The number of companies with elder care support services like referral hot lines to its workers peaked in the late 1990s but began dipping in the mid-2000s. According to a 2011 employee benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 9 percent of employers offer elder care referrals, down from 22 percent in 2007 and just 1 percent of employers subsidized the cost of elder care, down from 4 percent in 2008.

But that seems to be changing as the number of elder caregivers is expected to grow and as more women, who make up the majority of family caregivers, move up the corporate ladder, Hunt says.

"That really brings the issue home," Hunt says. "It used to be that women of a certain age when they got together at lunch the topic turned to caregiving because everyone had something happening with their parents or in-laws, but it never got up the C-level, until now."

At Ceridian Corp., a human resources consulting firm, interest in elder care services now surpasses interest in child care resources, according to Jennifer Piliero, senior product manager for LifeWorks, the company's employee wellness division.

"In the early 2000s we started seeing a shift in the workforce," she says. "There was a growing need for elder care resources in the world and inherently in the workplace. About five years ago requests for the elder care handbook that we publish began surpassing requests for the child care handbook."

The Minneapolis-based company offers companies both referral services through a 24/7 hot line and in-person geriatric care management. Employees get six free hours of consultation with a geriatric specialist and then pay a discounted rate for services if they choose to continue. The benefit costs employers about $1.50 to $2 a year per employee, Piliero says. About 400,000 employees at 25 companies utilize the program, she says.

While offering referral resources is the most common types of workplace elder care service, providing care management coordinators has a bigger impact on productivity, says Donna L. Wagner, a gerontology expert and contributor to the National Alliance for Caregiving report. "It puts on the onus on the employee because they still have to do all the legwork."

While referrals are great for child care givers whose needs are pretty straightforward, this approach often falls short when it comes to elder care, which is much more complicated, she says.

"There isn't a predictable set of supports and services," Wagner says. "With child care you know that you will need sick care, and then preschool, and then after-school care. Eldercare is very idiosyncratic; everyone has different health needs, different relationships with their parents and elder care tends to be episodic in nature. You might have a tough month because of a drug reaction or a fall; you can't predict when it's going to happen."

Geriatric care management is the best tool for controlling costs associated with care giving, she says. And it goes a long way in improving employee morale.

"Even when a care manager wasn't great employees had a higher level of presenteeism at work and a higher level of perceived health. Most employers don't want to pay for geriatric care managers when they do they see dramatic improvements in productivity and loyalty."

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce's senior writer. Comment below or email