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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : ELDER CARE : Many Want Elder-Care Benefits; Few Provide Them


Colleen Blair takes care of her 94-year-old father, who is senile and unable to bathe or dress himself. Her 86-year-old mother recently had a heart attack and can no longer help her husband.

Blair, 53, also works. As she makes T-shirts in her Costa Mesa home, she also must care for her parents. If she has to deliver shirts to a customer, Blair must bring her parents along. Although the arrangement works, it takes a toll in the form of physical strain and mental stress.

The family has looked into alternatives such as a home-care service or a hotel-like facility for the frail elderly. But the services are either too expensive or don't provide suitable care.

For Blair's daughter, Linda Gallardo, watching her mother and grandparents causes her to worry about the future. Gallardo knows that she may someday need to provide the same kind of care for her mother that her grandfather now demands.

"Right now it is mother's problem, but someday it will be my problem," she said.

The problem is likely to be even a bigger one for Gallardo, because she works in an office and can't tend to her mother at home. And that is one reason that she would like to see her employer make available benefits to provide care for elderly parents.

Gallardo was among the 38% of respondents to The Times Orange County Poll on workplace issues who said they would use elder care benefits if they were available. The response is even slightly larger than the percentage of those who said they would use child care benefits--34%.

According to the Times Poll, only 6% of the Orange County workers said their employers now provide elder care benefits, and 1% said they actually use them.

The need for workplace benefits to assist employees in taking care of elderly parents is just beginning to emerge nationwide, according to employee benefit experts. And the problem will grow larger as the baby boom generation ages and the prevalence of two-wage-earner families increases.

"Employers are just beginning to become aware there might be a problem," said Ruth Von Behren, president of the National Institute on Adult Day Care, a part of the National Council on Aging.

The reason is that elder care affects the worker and the company. Productivity may suffer if employees must take off time to care for their parents or face constant stress to deal with the problem, said elder care advocates.

Von Behren estimates that only about 300 private employers in the nation offer benefits for providing some form of elder care.

She added that when companies do address elder care as a part of an employee benefits package, they rarely consider providing on-site care facilities or subsidizing the cost of such outside care to employees.

An exception is Stride Rite, the shoe conglomerate, which earlier this year opened an inter-generational day care center--serving both other children and the elderly--at its corporate headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., where both young children and seniors can spend the day.

But more frequently, Von Behren said, companies' elder care services consist of establishing an information referral program to direct employees to existing community services for the elderly or providing a consultant to talk to employees with elder care needs.

IBM Corp. has had a telephone referral service since 1988 that can help employees find appropriate care for their parents anywhere in the country. Jim Smith, a spokesman for IBM at its corporate headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., said the company initiated the referral service after conducting a survey of its employees and discovering that 30% had some responsibility for taking care of an elderly relative.

Barbara Eden, who works as a manager in the Irvine branch of the Rolm Co., a joint venture between IBM and Siemens Co. that sells computerized telephone systems for business, said she sought help from the IBM referral service last year for a 76-year-old relative who was suffering from mentally debilitating Alzheimer's disease.

Eden said she didn't know where to turn when she realized that her father-in-law could no longer recognize family members and got lost in his own mobile home in Hemet. "You don't know what to do or who to call or where to start," she said.

Ultimately, with the help of local counselors provided by IBM, she was able to find a good nursing home in Hemet that accepted Alzheimer's patients.

Some companies are beginning to offer employees group long-term health plans--the premiums paid by the workers--to help finance their future elder care or child care needs. But even that is moving slowly. Phoebe Liebig, assistant professor of gerontology at USC, said she knows of only 118 employers nationwide that offer long-term care insurance.

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