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Firms see wisdom in elder-care plans

Workers with ailing parents find an array of stress-reducing services.

December 13, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Patricia and Pat Guadagno were terrified about the prospect of his ailing father going home.

The 86-year-old widower had spent weeks in a hospital rehabilitation unit after breaking his hip in a fall. Mostly confined to a wheelchair, he seemed weak and confused to his family. Yet he was adamant he'd be fine in his own apartment.

For help, Patricia turned to her employer, Prudential Financial Inc. The company helped cover the cost of a geriatric social worker who visited the man, evaluated his needs and helped persuade him to move to an assisted-care facility rather than returning to his own place.

"She moved mountains," Patricia, a nurse at a Prudential Financial office in Pennsylvania, said of the case worker. "It really made the situation so much easier."

Prudential Financial is one of a small but growing number of employers starting to provide elder-care benefits for employees.

Recognizing the mounting burden of caring for aging parents, companies including NBC Universal, Unilever USA and McGraw-Hill Cos. now offer services that include underwriting the cost of emergency caregivers and connecting employees with nursing-home finders or physicians who specialize in older patients.

Some employers are allowing workers to include their elderly parents in health insurance coverage. Some provide counseling, group support sessions, more flexible work schedules and even help with errands and home repairs.

Marc Solomon said his bosses helped ease his elder-care worries by providing a room where he and co-workers meet monthly over lunch to talk about the stresses of caring for parents. A software administrator for Toyota Motor Sales USA in Torrance, Solomon, 60, often came in early and left late to keep up with his duties while overseeing the care of his ailing father, who suffered from dementia. He died in 2005.

But the balancing act took a toll. "You don't at first notice the stress you're under," he recalled. "But every time the phone rings, you think it's the call when they'll tell you he's dead. Sometimes you're hoping that's the call you get because you want to get back to the life you had."

The elder support group is one of three that Toyota makes available to employees. The company covers the cost of an outside facilitator.

Although little data are available on the number of companies offering these benefits, consultants say elder-care assistance is catching on faster than did child care.

Many executives at these employers, typically men, initially saw child care as primarily a benefit for female workers. Elder care, on the other hand, is seen as a burden for both men and women, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute.

"Not everyone has children, but everyone has a parent," said Alexandra McCauley, a human resources vice president at NBC Universal in New York.

Also, experts say, full-time elder care is often more expensive and harder to find than child care.

Men account for nearly 40% of those with significant responsibilities for older relatives, according to a recent study from the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

Of course, adult children have always cared for ill family members. But a confluence of demographic trends has turned that responsibility into a major worry.

Most of the adult sons and daughters who look after their parents are still working -- 60%, according to one survey -- and they plan to stay on the job longer than workers of previous generations.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans who are 65 and older is expected to double to 71 million by 2030. Nearly every baby boomer still living will be included in that pool. The population of so-called superseniors, those 85 and older, also is expected to nearly double by that time to 9.6 million.

Employee absences and turnover tied to elder care already cost American employers as much as $33 billion a year, according to the study by MetLife, the research arm of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

At least six of 10 working caregivers found the work-parent pinch so consuming that they reduced their hours, took unpaid leave or made another change in their employment, the study showed.

These responsibilities, along with the sadness that comes with watching a loved one decline, have triggered stress and depression for some workers and led others to quit their jobs.

Employers traditionally tried to deal with elder-care issues by offering group rates on long-term care insurance policies that paid for a nurse or housekeeper. The expansion into other elder-care services comes at a time when businesses are trimming or eliminating other benefits, such as health insurance.

But elder-care benefits cost relatively little compared with health coverage, for example, and are often part of a package of services, like child-care assistance or access to legal help, offered by benefits vendors.

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