More than 14 million employees today face the challenge of balancing job duties with the responsibility of caring for an older relative, according to the San Francisco-based Family Caregivers Alliance. And the numbers are growing as America ages.
Employers and employees are feeling the cost of elder-care work conflicts to the tune of more than $11 billion in lost productivity annually, according to a MetLife study. Many baby boomer care givers find themselves sandwiched between caring for their own children and an elderly parent or relative.
Some find it an impossible task. In a National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP survey, more than 10 percent of working care givers leave their jobs as a result of care-giving responsibilities. Most, however, try to find a way to balance work and care giving.
Joy Loverde, a Chicago-based author of "The Complete Eldercare Planner," travels the country conducting workshops for care givers, health professionals, policymakers and businesses on how to effectively plan for the care of a growing elder population.
Loverde's Web site, www.elderindustry.com, offers advice and resources for care givers and professionals alike. She says that caring for aging family members is fast replacing child care as the top work/life issue.
Jan Louthain, a local author and editor of an online newsletter for baby boomers called Boomer-ring, knows firsthand the challenges of a career and care giving.
"I worked full time for the federal government and traveled a lot," she said. "I was away on a business trip for a week [in 2000] and when I came back, [both parents were] critically ill. We hospitalized my dad on Feb. 15. The very next day, Mom was also admitted. My father passed away and my mother died 11 days later."
As an only child, Louthain found herself away from the office for more than a month dealing with her parents' health issues, funeral arrangements and estate issues.
"My employer now has a program where you can use your sick leave for extended family care, but I don't believe it was in effect when my parents died," Louthain said. "My boss was very caring and concerned and willing to do anything he could for me, but our HR staff had their hands tied by the legal requirements of our leave program."
Employees face a daunting situation when an elderly parent needs care. The task can be even more difficult when they live in separate cities or states.
Deborah Russell, director of economic security for AARP, said the challenge comes from not knowing the community or knowing where to start for help.
Long-distance care givers miss an average of 20 hours per month of work, according to "Miles Away: The MetLife Study of Long-distance Caregiving," released by the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving.
The study found that long-distance care givers live an average of 450 miles and 7.2 hours from the person for whom they provide care. More than four in 10 say they've rearranged their work schedules for care giving.
Russell said elder-care locator programs are available in which adult children can search for the resources needed.
"They do your homework for you and pull together the best information available," she said.
One source is the U.S. Administration on Aging's online elder-care site, www.eldercare.gov, where information on a variety of topics is available by city and ZIP code.
In response to an increasing need for elder care, some companies are offering flexible work arrangements. AARP has identified the best employers of workers older than 50, and 100 percent of them offer flexible work arrangements, Russell said. Also, 70 percent to 80 percent offer some type of elder-care benefit.
Some employers, such as Eli Lilly and Co., have flextime options that can be used by employees to meet child care or elder care needs. They offer flexible starting hours, flexible weeks that might include four 10-hour days, part-time work arrangements, or telecommuting. They also offer dependent-care leaves and support groups for those caring for elders.
Ellen Miller, associate director of the Center for Aging and Community at the University of Indianapolis, said the center has been studying workplace policies and practices.
"Very soon, we're going to be doing some interviewing and data collection that will really look at and help define the state of the state," she said.
Miller hopes to release some of the findings this fall and get the information into the hands of the corporate community.
"Many employers haven't paid attention to the care-giving issue because they haven't yet felt the pain," Miller said. "Everyone knows that the work force is aging, but many of the related issues are being ignored."
Ed Barlow, president of Michigan-based human resources consultancy Creating the Future Inc., agreed.
"With the competitive nature of the economy, the whole area of benefit packages is under re-evaluation because of the cost it imposes on employers," he said.
Miller says companies don't always know where to turn to learn more about implementing elder-care benefits. The University of Indianapolis is sponsoring "Managing the 21st Century Workplace," a special conference on aging in the workplace on April 15 at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown.
The event will feature speakers such as Barlow, Russell and other experts who will speak to the challenges and opportunities the business world faces in the coming decade.
Russell expects to see growth in eldercare benefits as companies realize the impact of lost productivity.
"If you're worried about what's happening away from work, you can't be focused on the work at hand," she said. "Implementing elder-care benefits not only helps employees, but it minimizes loss of productivity."