Employers Need Policies, Practices to Support Employees Who Are Caregivers

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • As Mom was beginning to show signs of memory loss, I found myself in a very sticky situation. My folks lived at a distance, which meant that I could only get regular reports by phone. And what I heard from the home front wasn’t calming, at all. Mom increasingly was calling the EMTs to help her with her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Dad wasn’t sure how to calm her down in these situations or deal with her porous memory. Because Mom was growing distrustful of Dad due to his responses and her limited memory, she took control of her medications, even though she was having difficulty remembering what she had taken and when. And Mom and Dad began having terrible fights that proved most unsettling when taken in the context of their amicable marriage of almost 50 years.

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    Needless to say, the stress of what was going on with my parents definitely took a toll on me emotionally. Then I was called in by my boss. He kindly told me that I needed to get a handle on my composure because my emotions weren’t appropriate for the workplace and especially in the high-profile position that I held at the time. After that conversation, I worked hard to try to get my emotions under some semblance of control and eventually went to see a psychologist, who helped me come up with a mental game plan of how to approach my parents’ situation. And a few years later when Mom moved closer to me, I made the decision that I’d only be able to work part-time in order to deal with the Mom’s care issues.

    It turns out that my experiences are, unfortunately, pretty common.  A new story entitled “The Caregiver’s Dilemma” in the September 2011 issue of the AARP Bulletin describes how family caregivers are having trouble balancing their professional commitments and their wish to provide quality care to loved ones in need. The story, written by Sally Abrahms, points out the following:

    • The percentage of adult children who are 50 years old and above who care for parents has tripled since 1994, according to a June 2011 report by MetLife Mature Market Institute.
    • Forty-two percent of U.S. workers have had caregiver responsibilities for elders in the past five years, according to the Families and Work Institute. In addition, 49 percent expect to provide caregiving assistance to an older family member or friend by 2016.

    Abrahms noted that superiors may not understand the employee’s caregiving situation, especially if they have not been in a caregiving role themselves. She also suggests that many businesses don’t acknowledge the caregiving issues that face workers.  Based on my own experience, this suggestion has proven to be true.  In an interesting dichotomy, the organizations where I have worked tend to be clueless about elder caregiving, but will bend over backwards in relation to child care issues, whether through having on-site day care or giving parents time off to attend parent-teacher conferences.

    However, employers are beginning to face the issue of employees who are caregiving for elders. “Corporate America is paying a high price as their employees struggle to care for their aging relatives as reflected in absenteeism, workday interruptions, eldercare crises, and work schedule adjustments,” the Caregiver Resource Center (CRC) reported. “According to a MetLife Survey, the aggregate cost of caregiving to U.S. businesses, is estimated to be more than $29 billion per year.”

  • Unfortunately, the culture in many organizations is not yet conducive to providing support to their employees who are also caregivers. “Despite the ever-increasing numbers of elder caregivers in the workplace, these employees continue for the most part to struggle in silence,” the CRC stated. The center suggests that this silence may due to the employee's fear of job loss, missed promotions, stigma, denial, or the belief that their caregiving issues are not a legitimate work concern. Abrahams also suggests that elder care's unpredictability and society's fear of aging also may be factors in this silence.

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    Much like those who fought for the rights of workers who were parents of young children, it’s time to wave the banner concerning elder care. A significant number of employees are or soon will be facing caregiving duties for parents and friends. Finding ways to support them through official policies (such as flex time) as well as informal corporate cultural practices (such as supporting the employee as he or she faces difficult issues and decisions) increasingly will become important in order to retain dedicated employees. One of the people caring for aging relatives who was interviewed by Abrahms summed it up nicely: “If you have a family emergency, you shouldn’t have to worry, ‘Will I have my job tomorrow?’”

Published On: September 13, 2011