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Demands Grow on Workers Who Are Caregivers at Home

Not just for the aging - but for boomers - Long-term care has become an issue.

The most elaborate juggling acts today are performed by women holding down jobs while caring for aging parents, running their own households and still caring for their own children and grandchildren, according to a comprehensive report on caregiving released today.

Among its many findings, the “2009 Caregiving in the U.S.A.” study, commissioned by the National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP and funding from the MetLife Foundation, determined that the average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who has seen her personal responsibilities and career collide. Two-thirds of the surveyed caregivers have reported late to work or taken time off during the workday because of caregiving issues. For a fifth of caregivers, the demands were so intense they had to take a leave of absence from work. This is an increase from 2004, when 58 percent of surveyed caregivers said their responsibilities were affecting workplace attendance.

“It is without a doubt a juggling act,” says Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president of Livable Communities Strategies for AARP. “The average amount of time that somebody is providing care is 19 hours a week, which is in itself a part-time job.”

The time constraints on the country’s 66 million caregivers are only increasing, according to the report. In 2004, 58 percent of respondents said they’d been absent from work for caregiving-related reasons. In 2009, that figure increased to 64 percent, or nearly two out of three caregivers. Ten percent of workers felt that they needed to rearrange their work schedule or take a less demanding job to care for older adults, Ginzler says.

The caregiving drain

The financial, physical and emotional demands of caregiving are leaving caregivers desperate for resources that will ease their burden. This goes beyond feeling overwhelmed: Nearly a fifth of caregivers report their own health as fair or poor, and 17 percent of caregivers believe their health has worsened since taking on these duties. Roughly one in three caregivers report that caregiving is emotionally stressful.

It’s not a surprise, says Barbara McVicker, author of Stuck in the Middle, who consults with companies on caregiving issues. “Caregivers’ lives revolve around coming home from work, getting the kids off to soccer, then driving to Mom’s house and setting out the pills,” she says. “The things that used to feed their spirits, whether it was gardening or reading—they don’t do that anymore.”

Caregivers are also “absolutely running on empty,” says McVicker, since lack of time forces people to sacrifice sleep.

The caregiving marathon

The demands of caregiving are also rarely short-term. Most arrangements for older adults go on for an average of 4.6 years, according to the report. The most common tasks performed include helping older people with getting dressed, bathing and showering, toileting and feeding. Providing transportation, helping with housework, buying groceries, preparing meals and managing finances are also common responsibilities.

Most caregivers are not shouldering this burden alone. Two-thirds have help from another unpaid caregiver, such as a sibling, while 35 percent have paid help. The number of people using paid help decreased from 2004 to 2009, from 41 percent to 35 percent. This could be as a result of a flattened economy making it harder for people to afford to pay for help.

And the need for the number of caregivers in the United States is only going to increase as the boomer generation continues its march toward retirement, says Ginzler. But the generation following them is simply not as large, so in the future there will be fewer caregivers, yet more people in need of assistance.

Couple that with the fact that caregivers and their charges are both, on average, getting older. In the 2004 report, the average caregiver was 46.4 and the average recipient of that care 66.5. In 2009, the average caregiver was 49.2 and the average recipient was 69.3

On the home front, families should plan for how to support the country’s growing number of caregivers. McVicker recommends budgeting for in-home assistance and discussing early on what roles adult children are willing and able to do. The report also urges families and communities to help identify caregivers at risk for deteriorating health, financial security and quality of life. For example, doctors could also make a point of asking their patients about how they’re handling caregiving stress, McVicker says.

Companies respond

The workplace is slowly adapting to meet employees’ ever-expanding caregiver needs, Ginzler says. More and more companies that approve flextime work arrangements to keep new mothers in the workforce are learning that these programs benefit their older employees as well.

Take Bon Secours in Richmond, Va., a health care system that runs four hospitals and supporting medical offices. The company, on of 2009 AARP Best Employers, decided to offer benefits that specifically help their employees manage their caregiving and work responsibilities. They offer a wide array of elder care services to employees including: 10 days per year of emergency at-home care by trained professionals at a 50 percent reduced rate; respite services, which provides a break for the caregiver; discounts on long-term care; and a Grandpartners Program that invites older people to volunteer at the Bon Secours child care center. Flextime arrangements also allow employees to craft a schedule that best meets their caregiving responsibilities.

“These programs send the message that we care about our employees’ lives outside of work,” says Samara Musselman, director of the Bon Secours Family Center. “It helps them do their jobs, and helps them to serve our patients better.”

Of course, businesses not involved in health services may be more reluctant to offer such benefits, especially during a time when dollars are tight. But many corporations are starting to realize that offering flexibility is a better solution than losing mature workers, says McVicker. “They are realizing that if you don’t do it just out of being a good corporation, you really have to do it out for monetary reasons, because replacing a worker is costly.”

As boomers get older—and Americans live longer—businesses will have to find ways to accommodate workers whose time is in demand.

“In the ’70s the hot topic was child care,” McVicker says. “I believe going forward, particularly with the numbers of people over age 85, that elder care is going to be the topic.”

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about health and families from Rockaway Beach, NY.