Belle Lazarus lives in San Francisco, 3,000 miles from her mother and sister in Maryland. To bridge that distance when she and her sister needed to find support and activities for their mother - grocery delivery, transportation, places to play bridge - Ms. Lazarus turned to an elder-care referral service offered by her employer, Chevron Corp.
"I was able to get more information about services in that county than my sister, who lives there, was able to get when she sat down with the Yellow Pages," she says.
For a decade, workplace specialists have predicted that elder care would become the next major benefit. A study released last week by the Families and Work Institute reports that 25 percent of employees provided elder care during the previous year. Other research finds that an additional 22 percent expect to do so within five years. Yet only 30 percent of companies offer elder-care support, up from 13 percent in 1991.
"The problem is, most of our employees don't live where their parents live," says Sue Osborn, Chevron's work-family coordinator. "So it's a tough issue to address."
Unlike child care, which involves a single need - finding a place for children while parents work - elder care includes everything from transportation to in-home and out-of-home services. "It's a daunting task for individuals, let alone companies, to get their arms around," says Dana Friedman, senior vice president of Corporate Family Solutions in Port Washington, N.Y.
Elder care also has a more profound impact on work than child care does. Quitting rates for caregivers are much higher than for working mothers, Ms. Friedman notes. And caregivers' lost productivity costs firms more than $11 billion a year, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving in Washington.
The most common benefit involves counseling and referral services. Elder-care seminars and dependent-care accounts (in which employees can set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for care and services) also rank high.
In a report published this month by One Small Step in San Francisco, 62 Bay Area employers cite elder-care guidebooks, caregiver support groups, and long-term care insurance among the most frequently considered programs. "It's steady interest, and it's growing," says Judy David Bloomfield, director.
For Lazarus, help came from a referral service, LifeWorks. She received a book on long-distance caregiving and the name of an elder-care counselor in her mother's area. "Without these, I would probably have closed the door to my office and spent hours trying to track down information."
Her employer, Chevron, is one of 22 companies belonging to the American Business Collaborative, a consortium that enables firms to share costs and services for family benefits. In the Bay Area, Chevron offers in-home assessments at a discount to help workers determine what older relatives need.
Northern States Power in Minneapolis also pays for a geriatric case manager to recommend caregiving solutions. "It doesn't cost the company that much, and just knowing it's there makes people more grateful and confident," says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection in Minnetonka, Minn.
Some employers give caregivers flexible work schedules. Other companies sponsor elder-care resource fairs. Still others work with local agencies to improve services in the community.
One of the best things employers can do, Ms. Seitel says, is to put someone in charge of finding services and informing workers. "If companies spent a fraction of the time they spend marketing new products in helping employees take advantage of existing resources, it would be so valuable. And the payoff is clear, because it brings them back to work."
Employees, too, have responsibilities. First, they must make their needs known. While workers are often vocal about child-care problems, many remain silent about elder care.
"People feel an enormous personal responsibility to shoulder this themselves and care for their parents," says Diane Piktialis, vice president of Work/Family Directions in Boston. "But once it becomes a visible issue, companies have tended to be quite supportive."
Employees must also offer solutions. "If people can say, 'I have a problem, but here are some ways to work around it,' management is going to be much more forthcoming," says Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association in Kensington, Md.
Given the demographics, Friedman says, "Something must happen. Why not do it now, when we have 20 percent of the population that needs it, instead of when we have 50 percent?"