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Eldercare: Challenges and Choices

Eldercare is a costly struggle for employees and employers alike. A MetLife study found that people who take on a caregiver role give up more than $650,000 in lifetime earning potential. And on the employer side, the same study estimated that American businesses see a $33 billion productivity loss each year because of employees’ care giving obligations. There’s clearly a business case for introducing benefits and support programs.

First step, talk to your boss. Fortunately (or unfortunately) there’s not the same stigma with eldercare as often exists with childcare. When it comes to kids, many managers are quick to assume you can just hire a babysitter or put your kids in daycare. They’re not as flexible about childcare logistical challenges as they are about eldercare challenges. The solutions to eldercare needs aren’t as clear cut as simply hiring a professional caregiver, and the problems are often much more complicated than the need for supervision alone.

As an employee, it’s nearly impossible to keep eldercare challenges entirely separate from your work. It’s inevitable that some of your time at work will have to be spent checking in on mom or dad, calling doctors, dealing with insurance companies, making difficult decisions and more. Eldercare can be a fulltime job!

It’s smart to let your boss know that you’re coping with this issue. He or she need not be privy to every detail; you don’t want to come across as overwhelmed or unreliable. The goal is to reiterate your commitment to work, but also be clear that this is a personal priority and obligation.

In some cases, you may learn that your boss is dealing – or has dealt – with the same thing. And you’ll also get a sense of whether or not he or she is going to be supportive.

Research your company’s existing benefits. It’s important to understand the benefits available to you. This includes what your company offers and what you might be entitled to under the law.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires large employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off with job protection when workers must care for a sick or injured parent. Some states have extended this coverage to include small businesses as well and others have pending legislation. Sometimes taking limited time off, even unpaid, to get your eldercare plans in order is the best option to allow you to focus on establishing the right protocol for your family.

Suggest new benefits. In the absence of eldercare benefits, don’t be shy about suggesting programs that will benefit you and your entire workplace . You might go to your human resources department or to your manager and share some of the ways that other companies are supporting their employees. Respectfully ask that they consider exploring the possibility of offering the same. Benefits are typically offered in direct response to employee need. Maybe the need never existed before, but now you and some of your colleagues would truly benefit from the help.

Make your company’s flexible hours policy work for you. The top benefit that employees say would make all the difference in the world is flexible hours. The ability to work a compressed work week – longer shifts in fewer days or the option of working late some days in order to leave early on others – enables employees to schedule doctor’s appointments and other needs on specific days and times each week. Flexible hours also enable employees to have some free time during business hours to call doctor’s offices, insurance companies or other eldercare providers that are impossible to reach outside of normal business hours.

Attend informational seminars. Caregiver stress can take an enormous – and sometimes deadly – toll on caregivers. In fact, according to a University of Pittsburgh study, in cases where elderly caregivers attend to the needs of their needy spouses, mortality rates for caregivers are more than 60 percent higher than those of spouses in non-caregiver roles. Seminars that help caregivers to cope effectively with stress reduction, communication, managing emotions and making difficult decisions have proven beneficial to employee productivity.

One such program is offered by Legacy Health Systems and serves big companies like Nike and Intel, as well as numerous small employers throughout the country. Through their “Powerful Tools for Caregivers” program, they offer a six-week onsite course – typically held during a lunch hour – for up to 15 employees at one time who are currently coping with eldercare demands. The program is free to employers and employees; Legacy Health asks only for a donation of $25 per person to cover the fee for the companion book that’s provided to each participant. (For more information, email [email protected] .)

Take advantage of referral services. The most frequently offered eldercare benefit by employers, according to a 2009 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), is access to eldercare referral services via an online database and live consultants to help with short and long term needs: suggesting reputable doctors, healthcare providers and facilities, navigating the insurance process, coping with stress and so much more. An employee’s time is already at a premium, so such services help to minimize the burden of having to do extensive healthcare research.

Ceridian’s LifeWorks program offers eldercare referral services to employers such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, as well as many small and mid-size companies. According to Ceridian, for as little as $3-$5 per employee per year, with a minimum of about $3,000 per company for creating an account, even many smaller employers can afford to provide such comprehensive eldercare benefits.

United Behavioral Health also provides elder care services to employers of all sizes – including drug company AstraZeneca – yet more than 70 percent of those clients have less than 5,000 employees.

Use backup services, when available. According to SHRM only 5 percent of employers offer backup eldercare services, which are ideal when an employee must travel for business, when the normal caregiver is sick or on vacation, or when that caregiver requires a respite. Work Options provides such services to the employees of Microsoft and Princeton University, among others, and Bright Horizons offers backup eldercare to accounting giant Ernst & Young, among others.

As more employers recognize the burden of eldercare obligations on their workplaces, they’ll turn to backup benefits to help reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and improve retention. When employees take advantage of backup care, they’re able to continue working, which is an immediate benefit to the company.