ABOUT a year ago, Edward Owens's 80-year-old parents, who lived by themselves in Worcester, Mass., started to have trouble managing daily tasks. His father stopped driving, his mother found it difficult to cook, and neither did regular yard work or housework.
Mr. Owens, who is assistant director of Aetna health plans for Aetna Life and Casualty in Hartford, Conn., used the company's free elder-care referral service to find out about existing services for his parents.
``I probably would have just looked into nursing homes,'' he says, not knowing there are a variety of services available, ranging from lawyers who specialize in working with the elderly to various types of care facilities.
Within six months, Owens found someone to perform all of the services his parents needed in their home.
As the oldest baby boomers approach their 50s, there will be a surge of people in the workplace who will be caring for an elderly relative. And just as companies provided child-care services, some are beginning to add elder-care services.
About 20 percent of big companies in the United States provide some type of elder-care service for employees, according to Hewitt Associates, an employee benefits consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill; (78 percent of companies provide day care).
About 10 percent to 17 percent of the nation's work force provides some care to an elderly relative. In the next three to five years, that number will double or even triple, analysts say.
Companies have been slow to respond to the projected need, however. Andrew Scharlach, professor of aging at the University of California, Berkeley, attributes it to companies' short-sighted outlook. ``In terms of an issue of immediate concern to corporate America, [elder care is] really a rather minor issue,'' he says.
About 75 percent of today's elderly are cared for by a relative, according to the Families and Work Institute, a New York research group. Depending on the amount of care needed - whether providing personal care (bathing and dressing), doing shopping or housekeeping, or providing transportation - a worker can spend as much as 20 hours a week, says Peter O'Donnell, executive vice president of The Partnership Group, a work-life consulting firm in Lansdale, Pa.
For each employee who has elder-care responsibilities, Professor Scharlach estimates it costs a company about $2,500 a year in lost productivity.
``The issue of elder care for employers is probably where child care was about 10 years ago,'' says Diane Piktialis, vice president of Work/Family Directions Inc., a Boston-based consulting firm.
Yet, this issue is coming to the attention of employers much more quickly than child care ever did because the people affected are those who have power in the company.
``In the next five years, when baby boomers are in their 50s and their parents are in their 70s, that's when the numbers [of people caring for elderly relatives] will get big, and that's also when the baby boomers are going to be assuming power,'' says Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute. ``So the people at the top - the people in a position to do something about the issue - will be experiencing it personally.''
The most common service companies offer are resource and referral services - a toll-free hotline that employees access to obtain information. Others provide counseling, support groups, and seminars. And some companies are beginning to offer flexible work options.
Aetna launched an elder-care resource and referral service in 1988. Currently, 13 percent of the company's 44,000 employees have elder-care or adult-dependent care responsibilities, says Denise Cichon, senior consultant of Aetna human resources. Within the next three to four years, 21 percent of employees say they expect to care for an elderly relative.
Stride Rite Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., was the first among a handful of companies to open an intergenerational day-care facility to accommodate both employees' children and their elderly parents. Since the center opened four years ago, however, only about a dozen employees' elders have attended.
Because about one-third of care-givers provide care from a distance, many in the field argue that intergenerational day care does not meet employees' needs.
``Adult day care isn't the be-all and end-all to the elder-care crisis,'' says Karen Leibold, director of work and family programs for Stride Rite. But the system is one option to solving the elder-crisis, she contends.
Companies should contribute more financially to help support community-based services, analysts say.