Workers get help caring for older relatives

As a single mother and quality control manager at Southwestern Bell Telephone, Sara Mackey thought she had her hands full. Then, her elderly aunt became ill. Soon, Ms. Mackey was devoting 15 hours a week to arranging home aid care, meals, regular visits, and managing her aunt's finances.

``The hospital visits and phone calls did interfere with work,'' Ms. Mackey allows. ``Fifteen hours a week is not so much, I guess, but it's the added feeling of responsibility. You think about it a lot,'' she related in a recent phone interview from St. Louis.

Mackey's position is not unique. At Southwestern Bell, some 15,000 employees, one in every four, now care for elderly relatives. That ratio of ``caregivers'' is common among firms where the average employee is 35 or older.

But now Southwestern Bell has joined a small, growing cadre of corporations developing programs to assist workers faced with the challenge of caring for elderly relatives. And this isn't just corporate do-gooding.

``This is a bottom line issue,'' Southwestern Bell president John E. Hayes, told a conference on eldercare that drew some 70 corporations to New York last month. ``What was once just a private family matter has developed into a far-reaching national issue,'' he said.

Indeed, ``eldercare'' is just now being recognized by corporate America as a significant productivity concern. Employees who are caregivers spend office time on private calls, are absent or late more frequently, and tend to have low morale.

``My boss was very understanding,'' recalls Donna Perez, another long-time Southwestern Bell employee who recently found herself caring for her mother-in-law. ``But had I had some guide, some help in finding the resources available, it would have saved me a lot of time and stress.''

``Many talented employees never reach their potential because of caregiving obligations. They often have to avoid travel, overtime, and even promotions,'' Mr. Hayes notes.

Why has this suddenly emerged as a corporate issue?

Eldercare demands are growing. And in the last two years, several studies have awakened corporations to some demographic and societal trends coming to a head.

``The population of 85-year-olds will double by the year 2,000. The population over 65 will nearly double. As the number of elderly grow, the number of dependents tends to grow,'' says Dr. Michael Creedon, director of the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) Center for the Study of Aging.

Traditionally, women have taken on the responsibility of caring for elderly relatives. But today more than half of all adult women work outside the home. In some parts of the economically robust Northeast, that figure jumps to nearly 85 percent.

Still, women are attempting, as Mackey has, to juggle work and family. And the dual role takes its toll on the corporation. ``One national study shows about 12 percent of working women drop out of the workforce due to caregiving demands,'' says Dr. Creedon. Another survey of 150 Philadelphia families found 28 percent of the non-working women quit their jobs to care for their widowed mothers.

These caregivers aren't easily replaced, low-level workers. Caregivers tend to be female employees 35 to 45 years old. Often they are experienced managers who must sacrifice office time to deal with physicians, social security, and medicare agencies open only during business hours.

To keep these valued managers productive, nearly 100 corporations have initiated some kind of benefit or informational eldercare program in the last two years.

For example, PepsiCo, working with Dr. Creedon at the University of Bridgeport, was among the first to provide 2,700 area employees in its Purchase, N.Y. headquarters with lunchtime seminars and a handbook of agencies, services, and programs for the elderly.

``As much as rearing children, this can be a drain on employees. We provide these resources so they can draw upon them to be better employees,'' says Keith Anderson, a PepsiCo spokesman.

The University's Center on Aging has also set up a hot line where employees with PepsiCo and other local firms, including Pitney-Bowes, Pepperidge Farm, People's Bank of Bridgeport, and Remington Products can get quick answers to difficult situations.

Providing information is a relatively easy and inexpensive first step for corporations. Eldercare benefits such as time off, financial assistance, and on-site day care are more costly commitments. But some companies are going that way.

Champion International Corporation in Stamford, Conn., recently expanded its six-month leave-of-absence program to include employees who needed to take care of elderly relatives. Ms. Perez at Southwestern Bell hopes her company establishes a similar policy. ``Just to know that benefit was there would provide some relief. You feel pulled both ways otherwise. You worry that by leaving, you'll jeopardize your job - at a time you may need it most.''

Remington Products in Bridgeport is on the verge of a trial ``respite'' program where the company picks up half the cost of having a home aid or some other service take over the caregiving duties part of the week, thereby giving the employee a break from these chores.

Stride Rite Corp., a children's shoemaker in Cambridge, Mass., recently announced plans to expand its on-site child care center into an intergenerational care center.

In 1985, Travelers Corporation of Hartford, Conn. was the first major corporation to take a comprehensive look at eldercare and its employees. The insurance firm now provides counseling, information, flexible scheduling, and pre-tax deductions of up to $5,000 annually to spend on care for elderly dependents.

Despite the need, not all eldercare programs are readily embraced.

``Many employees don't want management to know they have an eldercare problem,'' says Dr. Creedon. ``They don't want management to know they've been using the phone at work, coming in late or whatever. There's a certain level of distrust that has to be overcome.''

For instance, Pitney-Bowes has conducted lunch forums, support groups, and had a hotline for two years. ``We're just starting to get a good level of response,'' says Madeline Treitel.

Some eldercare programs may be rejected first by managment purely on a cost evaluation basis. ``A good number of the companies we surveyed were leery of letting this issue out into the workplace,'' says Avril Weisman of the National Association of Area Agengies on Aging. ``They're worried employees will expect benefits the company's not prepared to provide.''

But Creedon warns against simplistic cost analysis. Some corporations may already be paying for eldercare in hidden ways.

Says Creedon: ``Caregivers tend to have a higher rate of physician visits, depression, and sleeplessness. So, it's already impacting the bottom line in higher employee health care costs. Not to mention absenteeism.''

Workplace experts predict eldercare programs will eventually be embraced by more corporations, perhaps more quickly than child care programs, since people caring for older relatives often come from the ranks of company officers.

Corporate eldercare resources

National Council on the Aging, Inc., 600 Maryland Ave., SW, West Wing 100, Washington, DC 20024.

Publication: ``Issues for an Aging America: Employees and Eldercare'' details company and university programs, government resources.

Available mid-July. $25.50.

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, 600 Maryland Ave., SW, Suite 208, Washington, DC 20024.

Over 55 Area Agency offices nationwide provide information on local programs and services for the elderly. Also coordinated a landmark study with Wang Laboratories and national corporate surveys.

American Association of Retired Persons, 1909 K St., NW, Washington, DC 20049.

``Caregivers in the Workplace'': Survey, training, and management package.

PepsiCo, Southwestern Bell, and Travelers also invite inquiries on their programs and resource materials.

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