Deborah Smith, 55, a federal employee in North Carolina, is the 24/7 long-distance caregiver to her friend Donna, who lives in Florida and has dementia and no family. Smith visits Donna every four to six weeks but avoids discussing her at work because "I fear not being promoted or selected for training that could enhance my career," she says. "I fear I may be on the chopping block if I appear too distracted."
Even when workers explain their situation, younger or parentless superiors and coworkers may not "get" it. "Instead of saying to themselves, 'I admire this person because he has the guts to take off work as a way of coping with the situation,' coworkers and managers think, 'How dare they leave, why don't they just hire someone else?' " says Sarah Bullard Steck, a Washington, D.C., social worker in private practice and former director of an employee assistance program that addressed elder care issues.
Challenges all around
What makes elder care unusually challenging is its unpredictability. You might ask about taking off every Tuesday at 3 p.m. for your child's soccer, but you have no heads-up about when your mother is going to fall and break a hip. Experts believe there may be a bit of ageism lurking, too.
"As a society, we don't always respect and honor older adults needing care as much as we should," says Melissa Brown of Boston College's Sloan Center on Aging & Work. "Maybe we are afraid to look at our own aging."
"Many businesses don't consider elder care an issue and call me only when there's a crisis," says Linda Ziac, president of the Caregiver Resource Center, which offers corporate seminars on elder care issues. "Companies need to acknowledge the workforce is aging and has aging parents, and what not addressing their struggles costs them."
Next: Caregiving costs. >>