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ELDER CARE: Caring for California's Aging Population : Corporations Are Facing Up to Need to Help the Helpers : Caring for elderly relatives costs American businesses $10 billion a year in lost worker time. One answer may be employee benefit plans that include flex time and counseling programs.

May 20, 1990|ANNE C. ROARK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Travelers Insurance Co. conducted a survey of its employees several years ago and found that 28% of workers over the age of 30 were providing some form of care for an older person.

The time spent by employees on such tasks as giving baths, running errands and driving elderly relatives to and from doctors' appointments was not trivial, the survey found: Nearly 8% of the surveyed employees reported spending 35 hours or more a week caring for an elderly person--"nearly the equivalent of a second full-time job," according to Andrew E. Scharlach, a USC professor who uncovered similar trends at Transamerica Life Companies when he recently conducted a study of employee problems at that organization.

According to the Travelers survey, the Transamerica survey and other similar studies, between a fifth and a third of employees over 30 are providing assistance to one or more elderly people. Workers spend an average six to 10 hours a week at those tasks, the responsibility for which they typically have to shoulder for five years or more.

Employees must shoulder these duties all the time, not just on their days off. Workers who care for elderly relatives report a higher than normal number of interruptions at work. They acknowledge that they are more likely than their colleagues to be on the telephone, to take unscheduled days off and to suffer physical and mental problems.

What is corporate American doing about it?

Until recently, not much. If they thought about it at all, top executives assumed that care of the old and infirm was, as it had been in decades past, the responsibility of family and government. It is government, after all, that runs the Social Security program for senior citizens and pays Medicare benefits for those 65 and over. And it is government in other countries--most notably Canada and England--that organized comprehensive, low-cost systems of medical and social care for the elderly.

The U.S. system grew up differently, however. Run by local communities, it is a fragmented amalgam of services for the elderly in which federal and state funds are turned over to local agencies with little overall planning. What's worse, as federal and state politicians have cutfunds for social services programs, the elderly population of the United States has grown rapidly. The system as it existed in the 1970s and 1980s is likely to break down completely by the year 2000. At least that's what some scholars and policy-makers are beginning to fear.

Any number of reforms have been proposed by lawmakers, public-interest groups and university researchers. Researchers at UC San Francisco, for example, recently issued a report warning that something must be done to raise more state revenue--higher sales taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and income taxes on corporations and individuals--if long-term medical care needs are to be met over the next few decades. There are 1.1 million state residents who need long-term personal and medical care, the report said, and there will be twice that number by the year 2020, many of these elderly.

For more than a year, bitter disputes in Washington have centered on how to finance a new and controversial Medicare catastrophic care program. The program, approved last year by Congress, was designed to help the elderly pay the costs of prescription drugs and extended medical treatment. In an effort to hold down overall taxes, however, lawmakers decided to finance the program by taxing only retirees. Many senior citizens saw that decision as an affront to the elderly, a grossly unfair system that places far too large a financial burden on middle-income people who have to make ends meet on fixed incomes.

If the situation is difficult now, what will happen when the Baby Boom generation gets old? Analysts have long predicted that when they retire, today's 30- and 40-year-olds will bankrupt the Social Security fund and strain Medicare and other government health and social services beyond repair.

"All of that is why corporate America may have to do something about the problems. They are not getting solved by anyone else," said Roy S. Azarnoff, a gerontology expert who has started a private business to help corporations help families of the elderly.

If Azarnoff, who lives in Southern California, and a number of other entrepreneurs, including Ken Dychtwald, a Northern California expert in gerontology, have their way, corporate America will pick up the slack--and then some. Private enterprise may do for tomorrow's elderly what government did for the elderly in years past.

By some estimates, American businesses are losing about $15 billion a year because of the burden on workers who provide care for their elderly relatives. Those losses may increase as the size of the elderly population continues to grow and the younger population begins to shrink.

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