Eldercare fast becoming an issue in workplace

Companies should help workers who care for aging parents find ways to keep a balance

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Eldercare and employees

Eldercare and employees (Silvia Jansenthe Agency Collect, Getty Images / June 15, 2012)

In college I would often spout off — with great indignation — about issues that annoyed me. That earned me the not-so-complimentary nickname, Righteous Rex.

Prepare to meet him.

Some troubling statistics recently landed in my email inbox: The number of U.S. workers who are caring for one or both of their parents has tripled in the past 15 years. According to one recent study, there are nearly 10 million adult children over 50 years old responsible for an aging parent, and companies are losing upward of $17 billion a year due to absenteeism and other factors relating to caregiving.

With the boomer generation not getting any younger, this is a rapidly swelling issue that should be of immense concern to companies across the country. But it doesn't seem many are paying attention.

"I think we have a stigma about aging in this country, and I don't think anybody ever thought we'd have to be dealing with this situation," said Cindy Laverty, a caregiving coach and founder of The Care Company, which works with individuals and advocates for working caregiver rights. "It used to be that people died in their 70s. Now they're dying in their 90s and 100s. So we have people who are either leaving the workforce to go take care of a loved one or they're missing a lot of days of work, taking unpaid leaves of absence, and it's adding up."

As is often the case in the workplace, the heart of the problem here is a lack of communication. Companies are not considering the fact that they might have workers who need to care for a parent or other adult relative, and employees aren't letting companies know what they need in order to balance work and these outside responsibilities.

Also, as Laverty pointed out, we are a society that gets a bit weird about aging and death. People brag about their kids, but rarely does anyone talk about how they're helping an elderly loved one.

"People don't usually have pictures of their parents or grandparents on their desks, so it's not a normative behavior — it's not completely accepted," said Gail Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving, which recently published a report called "Best Practices in Workplace Eldercare." "And so some people are afraid to seek help or flexibility from work. They worry that when the time comes for promotions or for layoffs, people will remember that they were the person who took the time off to take their mom to physical therapy."

It's a shame anyone would have to fear how an employer might judge them for taking care of a relative. There are limits, of course, but in this era of connectivity and telecommuting, it seems there's little reason why workers can't establish a level of flexibility that makes caregiving workable.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if corporate America could work with the individual person who's just trying to do the right thing by their parents?" Laverty said. "Wouldn't it be great if we started to change the way we view this subject, knowing that it's going to happen to everyone? Caregiving doesn't discriminate. It's going to happen to the CEO, the vice president, down to middle management and the worker. And it takes an emotional toll."

The good news is that there are some relatively simple steps companies can take to make life better for employees who have caregiving responsibilities.

Raising the issue is the logical first step. Ask employees what the company can do to provide support. Consider bringing in people from local agencies who are familiar with the caregiving services and support groups that are available.

"People don't realize that there are millions of other caregivers out there, and they feel so alone," Hunt said. "They feel like they're the only person struggling."

The next key is offering workers some flexibility. I believe that if you trust your employees, if you show a willingness to help them work through the demands of family life, that trust will be paid back both in productivity and loyalty.

"When I talk to caregivers, they want to do the right thing," Laverty said. "They want to work, they want to take care of their loved ones. They just don't know how to do it."

None of this requires any significant investment on the part of a company.

Of course workers can't just sit around and wait for their employers to bring up the subject of adult caregiving.

Have a conversation with your boss or manager, explain your caregiving situation and see if there's a mutually agreeable way to make sure your work hours are spent focused on work and not worrying or feeling guilty about other obligations.

To not give workers the support they need to care for their aging loved ones goes against our better nature.

Yet there are millions out there — and there are millions more to come — who are stressed and exhausted, worried about their jobs, guilty that they aren't doing all they can for their moms or dads. 

If you're one of those people, speak up, and seek out others whose shared experiences might help you out. And if you're an employer, speak up, and see if there aren't people in your company, people you see every day, who could benefit from an easily extended helping hand.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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