Workforce.com

Elder Care—You Can't Buy, Pray or Prescribe Your Way Out of It

March 6, 2013

Ed Frauenheim is on assignment.

I had been looking forward to lunch with my friend Kate for some time. During the past few years we've bonded over the travails of raising teenagers, the challenges of balancing work and home and the exhausting job of caring for elderly parents. We laugh a lot when we're together too, but those topics always seem to creep into our conversations—the last one with increasing frequency.

We've tried to get together several times in the last year but as any working mom knows, coordinating schedules with friends often means planning so far in advance several holidays can go by before you actually see each other. But this time the planets had aligned and our lunch date was set. I was looking forward to it.

The day before she sent me an email that began with: "Well, things with my parents have gone to hell in a hand basket and I'm heading to Tennessee for a week." Her mom is struggling with dementia and her father is in failing physical health. Watching their decline has been devastating for Kate and her family.

So it goes with the life of a caregiver. There are good days and there are bad days and there are days when all hell breaks loose. One minute you're on the phone with your mom planning a trip to the mall and the next minute you're in the emergency room praying that she didn't have a stroke or break her hip or catch pneumonia. A million things can go wrong when our bodies start to fail us.

It's a wild and unpredictable ride and eventually, most of us will climb aboard. Or as Greg Johnson, director of family care giving at New York-based EmblemHealth, Inc. says, "you can't buy, pray or prescribe your way out of it." When a parent needs help few of us have much choice other than stepping up and doing the best we can.

And that's exactly what 65 million people are doing every day—caring for an elderly relative, often while holding down a full-time job. Any many of them are also raising children—the sandwich generation as they are called. I am one of them. I have two amazing teenagers and one loving 86-year-old mother, and all three are at a stage in their lives where they need me more than ever.

Trying to meet their needs while working full time often leaves me feeling drained and in need of some care myself. Luckily, I have understanding editors who allow me to work from home when I need to, but not everyone is so lucky. Just ask the telecommuters at Yahoo!

With people living longer the number of caregivers in the workplace is rising rapidly and that costs companies up to $34 billion a year due to absenteeism and lost productivity. That doesn't include health care costs, which are higher for caregivers who are more likely to suffer from heart disease, depression and other health issues than noncaregivers. At the same time the number of companies offering elder care programs and services has declined.

That means more employees are using lunch breaks to drive dad to the doctor or sort out medical bills. Employees at companies without elder care referral services or flextime or other supports must navigate the confusing world of Medicare and Medicaid and nursing homes and in-home care alone and during any spare moment, including vacation time. Not surprisingly, burnout and fatigue are higher for caregivers than for other workers.

But there is much that employers can do to help those workers, like offering flextime and resource-and-referral services. Some companies, like Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey, are taking it a few steps further, offering free geriatric care services to its employees. Caregivers work with a case manager who checks in regularly and will even visit nursing homes and other facilities with the family.

While many employers can't afford such extensive supports, just offering flexible schedules and a little understanding can go a long way in helping workers stay healthy and in boosting retention and loyalty.

The issue of elder care will gain more attention as more workers become family caregivers—a role typically dominated by women. And as more women move into executive positions the problem of caring for mom or dad will become just as pressing as finding good child care.

Johnson of EmblemHealth calls caregivers "the backbone of the world." But the weight of supporting kids and parents can be crushing. By providing elder care support employers can do a lot to lighten their load.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce's senior writer. Comment below or email her at rpyrillis@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.