Employees face parent-care challenges

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By Brian Goslow
As the nation ages, more workers are juggling jobs with the care of an elder family member. Recognizing the trend, companies stepped in by offering programs and services to help beleaguered employees.

But, when the county began experiencing economic instability, many companies began cutting back on those perks.

The percentage of companies offering eldercare programs dropped from 22 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2011.

Similarly, the percentage of companies offering eldercare-related resource and referral programs dropped from 23 percent in 2003 to 9 percent in 2011, while the percentage of employees taking advantage of paid family leave to assist elder loved ones dropped from 33 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2011.

These are among the findings of “Best Practices in Workplace Eldercare,” a study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving for ReACT (Respect A Caregiver’s Time), a coalition of corporations and organizations that addresses the challenges faced by employee caregivers and helps to reduce the impact on companies that employ them.

Resource and referral services are at the center of most eldercare programs, including assistance with information and paperwork related to Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance programs; some also offer geriatric care management services. Among benefits provided by some, but not all of the companies offering eldercare programs are paid time off, flexible approaches to time off and discounted backup home care for emergency needs.

Participating companies in the study came from professional/non-profit associations, health care providers, higher education, the financial industry and insurance, manufacturing, media, pharmaceutical and IT-related industries. One-third of the responding companies started their eldercare programs over the past three to five years.

Referring to companies that have cut back their eldercare programs, Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, said,

“We can hope that when the economy turns around that they will bring those programs back. They had a similar drop-off in childcare. (These are) programs that are easier to get rid of. We hope that that will turn around but even at its heyday, we’re talking 23 percent.”

Employers began offering programs to assist caregivers over a quarter-century ago. “They did it based on the childcare model,” Hunt said. “It was sort of assumed (at first) that the eldercare issue was pretty much the same as the childcare issue. You needed to have some kind of childcare, regular or specialized, somewhere between your work and home.”

However, it turned out eldercare issues are much more complex than childcare: Employees not only need counseling related to the challenges of balancing work, family and looking after a parent, but a better understanding of the help their older relative needs in order to be able assist them properly and secure the necessary help they need to live comfortably. Some businesses offer geriatric care management programs.

“The companies are essentially paying for a geriatric care manager to go into the home to assess what the issues are and design a care plan for the older person and then to work to kind of set it up in place,” Hunt said. “That’s really the gold standard.”

While many employees have eldercare responsibilities, the number of them utilizing available services in the workplace has always been low, ranging from 1 to 4 percent. Explanations for these low numbers vary.

One reason is some workers believe that they’d be penalized by supervisors who perceive their caregiver obligations will make them less able to fulfill their work duties, whether that’s truly the case or not. Employees were found to be reticent to ask for time off if they had to explain their situation to a supervisor — even when the company made flextime available.

Donna L. Wagner, associate dean at Health and Social Services College at New Mexico State University, believes workers do have reason for concern.

“(Employers) definitely hold that (having caregiving responsibilities) against them; there’s no two ways about that,” said Wagner, who also worked on the study. Whether there’s a worse “stigma” with respect to eldercare than childcare, is not clear, she said.

Past research found employees were worried about repercussions and whether they should even take their family matters into the business arena. Wagner feels that as growing numbers of older boomers become commonplace in the workplace, companies will act to ensure employees aren’t penalized for taking time off to look after loved ones when necessary.

She compares current attitudes to decades ago when growing numbers of women wanted to enter the workforce and employers considered not promoting them — or even not hiring them — if they felt they would eventually have children, causing them to have to take time off from their job.

In a prior study, Hunt said they found that people don’t use available corporate eldercare services until they’re in dire straits. “Maybe their boss is complaining about all the time they’re taking off or telling them they seem distracted at work,” she said. “Maybe then, when it really starts to interfere with things at work, they’ll start to use the program. They just don’t see this as a workplace issue (until it becomes a highly noticeable problem).”

In some instances, employers have added paid time off for caregivers, in addition to vacation, sick and personal days, to their benefits package; others allow employees to use the traditional earned days for caregiving purposes.

The study suggested eldercare program utilization could increase if workplace “gatekeepers” — the line supervisors and managers — were sensitized to the issue and that the overall attitude of an organization’s corporate culture was important to an eldercare program’s success.

It stated that employers of all sizes “are well advised to plan for a growing number of employees who will have eldercare responsibilities in the future,” in part, at least, because as the study notes, recent surveys have found that 60 to 70 percent of the current workforce plans on working past the standard age of retirement.

Another possible reason for the low utilization rate of existing eldercare programs is the coupling of a lack of marketing with a lack of knowledge among employees on how the program will benefit them.

“Employees must understand what the program will do for them, need the services or policies that are offered, trust that using the programs or even revealing their caregiving responsibilities will not lead to negative workplace consequences and be assured that direct supervisors and managers, as well as co-workers, will not hold it against them if they need to make workplace accommodations,” the study stated.

None of the employer respondents in the study mentioned having programs in place to train supervisors and managers about eldercare issues nor were there systematic evaluations to ascertain whether the programs were meeting the needs of both employers and employees.

In terms of employees who participated in the “Best Practices in Workplace Eldercare” study, Hunt said many of the respondents that already had some level of caregiving responsibilities said they didn’t use the services offered at their workplace because they didn’t feel as if their situation was so dire.

The study suggested that as today’s caregivers retire, they’ll be replaced by workers who’ll have higher expectations from their employers, due to the benefits and policies instituted over the past 30 years, including those tied to child-raising and eldercare. “Strong work/family programs and flexible policies will ensure that employers continue to be attractive to younger workers in the future,” the report stated.

Perceived benefits to corporate eldercare program participants included reduced absenteeism, improved productivity, better retention rates, improved recruitment, reduced stress in the workplace and enhanced employee loyalty.

Effective responses to assisting employee caregivers “does not have to be expensive or elaborate” and a good flex-time policy can help the majority of employees who are having difficulty managing work and caregiving, according to the study. “Paid time off and allowing employees to use their sick days and vacation days for caregiving purposes is also a family-friendly policy that sends a supportive message to employees,” said the report.

The study found a growing number of companies were moving away from “full-service” comprehensive one-vendor workplace elder services to utilizing programs by more than one vendor that are supplemented by internal staff or Employee Assistance (EAP) programs.

An increasing reliance on technology to provide informational and support services to caregiving employees is also being seen. In the United Kingdom, employers have “tele-lunch and learns” where employees sign into a live chat room where they can ask questions of an expert on that day’s topic. Those that couldn’t participate in the live webinar sign on when it’s convenience for them to watch the program and read what issues were covered.

Hunt said this idea could easily be adopted as part of a company’s eldercare assistance program here in the United States. For example, if a hospital holds a noontime event, daytime workers are the ones most likely to be able to participate. Technology allows those working other shifts to watch or review the presentation at a more convenient time. “That’s the chance you have to reach them with the information,” she said.

Asked what they would do if resources were not a factor, employers said they’d increase the number of subsidized days of home care, provide more paid days off, provide assistance on long term care decisions through access to elder law professionals who provide more in-depth information, expand seminar programs, start a geriatric care management program and provide more hours of paid time for caregivers to meet to support each other.

In light of the low employee participation numbers, workers will have to speak up if eldercare programs are to be maintained and expanded. “It has to have a little bit of bottom up as well as having the recognition by the VP of HR of a big company,” Hunt said. “The employees, the working caregivers, have to be receptive to this. They have to start thinking about going to their HR department.”

And, in those instances where companies don’t have programs available, workers dealing with eldercare issues should know they could always go online and search for their local eldercare number at eldercare.gov.

“If they only have that one number, in the end that will at least get them started,” Hunt said.