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Boomers Sandwiched Between Generations

Elder care has become critical issue as professionals' parents head into their 70s and 80s.


On top of holding down a challenging management job at Southern California Edison Co. and raising a son in grade school, Enid Joffe took on another demanding responsibility slightly more than a year ago: arranging round-the-clock care for her elderly, faltering mother.

It wasn't easy. To begin with, Joffe's 87-year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, was living a continent away, back in Brooklyn. Joffe also needed to get control of her mother's scattered bank accounts, pay off her overdue bills and manage her ongoing expenses.

Fortunately, Edison is one of the relatively small but growing number of companies that provide employees with elder-care referral services or related help. So when Joffe needed to find caregivers, she was given names of agencies in New York that could screen candidates for the job. And when Joffe, 45, needed legal advice concerning her mother's finances, she received names of lawyers specializing in that type of work.

"For someone who doesn't have all of the resources and company programs at their fingertips, it must be overwhelming," said Joffe, who has worked in public affairs and, more recently, electric vehicle projects at the electric utility and one of its sister companies.

With the eldest members of the baby boom generation beginning to hit age 50, and with their parents frequently in their 70s and 80s, elder care is emerging as an important workplace issue. Experts said boomers, often already stressed out by their jobs, now also feel increasingly squeezed by the demands of caring for both young children and aging parents.

Still, employers have been slow to launch elder-care programs to ease workers' burdens and, some experts said, may forever be reluctant to tackle the issue as ambitiously as child care.

A recent survey by the American Management Assn. found that just one of the 208 employers it polled--less than half of 1%--offered on-site or nearby elder-care facilities for workers' elderly relatives. By contrast, 13% of the employers operate child-care facilities.

Likewise, whereas 33% of the employers offer child-care referral services, 24% supply similar elder-care benefits.

Experts offer several explanations for the lag in elder-care programs. For starters, given that so many elderly suffer health problems and live far away from their children and grandchildren, "there's a level of complexity that makes [employers] nervous," said Bradley Googins, director of the Center on Work and Family at Boston University.

Moreover, many baby boomers haven't yet reached the point in life where it hits them personally.

Employees' failure to speak up and press for such programs may be partly to blame too, said Charles Rodgers, research director and part owner of Work/Family Directions, a Boston-based consulting firm. Some employees, he said, have a psychological barrier when it comes to elder care. "A lot of people think that 'This is my responsibility, I've got to handle it myself,' " Rodgers said.

Trouble is, in many cases "family caregivers often do not know where to turn," said Peter Braun, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Alzheimer's Assn., which provides advice to families in need of elder-care help.

The Alzheimer's Assn. cites such big employers as Arco, IBM Corp. and PepsiCo Inc., along with Edison and several others, as leaders in providing elder care. The services typically involved the sorts of screening and counseling programs that Joffe used, along with running periodic seminars and establishing support groups for affected employees.

Joffe, for her part, said she initially dealt with the extra duty of managing her mother's affairs by getting up an hour earlier, and making calls back east at 6 a.m. nearly every day to doctors, social workers or whomever else she needed to consult. "It was always something," Joffe said.

While she feels her work didn't suffer, Joffe said her husband and 10-year-old son could see "how stressed out I was. I'd try to be calm on the phone, but I'd explode when I got off."

Finally, one day the two women who alternated caring for her mother in New York got into a dispute and paged Joffe at work to arbitrate. At that point, Joffe and her husband brought her mother out to Southern California and found a board-and-care facility for her about a five-minute drive from the family's Sierra Madre home.

Now, Joffe said, her concerns have been eased and she suffers fewer distractions at work.

Frank Quevedo, the Edison executive who oversees the company's work-family and equal opportunity programs, said that is precisely why his company offers elder-care and child-care services. "It allows employers to be more focused on their work when they don't have that burden to deal with," Quevedo said.

That's particularly true, Googins said, when it comes to elder care. "With child care, you do have situations where there is backup help," he said. "Elder-care episodes tend to be more complicated. They can take a lot more energy than, say, staying home for a day."

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