Need Help? Ask Your Employer
A growing number of companies are introducing 'eldercare' benefits
After persuading her elderly parents to pack up their Florida home and move north, Sandy Karasik now must actually make the transition happen. Her folks might manage fine in an apartment near her home in Glen Mills, Pa.-or maybe the time has come for an assisted-living facility. What's the best way to identify their needs and choose new doctors? Perhaps she should hire someone to help them downsize before they move. For guidance, Karasik, 49, plans to tap an unlikely source: her employer.
As baby boomers turn en masse from raising kids to tending parents, bosses-out of self-interest-are starting to offer support. A recent survey by MetLife Mature Market Institute, a policy center focused on aging issues, found that U.S. businesses lose $33.6 billion a year to absenteeism, workday interruptions, and employee turnover caused by the care of aging relatives. In response, about one quarter have added "eldercare benefits" to their compensation packages. When San Francisco attorney Tammy Albarran's dad had a massive stroke and needed a rehabilitation facility, she logged on to a referral service provided by her firm, Morrison and Foerster, and filled in details of his condition and insurance coverage. Within 48 hours, she had a list of facilities that included the place he would stay for the next two months. "I was amazed at how helpful they were," she marvels.
Full service. At AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical giant where Karasik works as an associate director, staffers can get six hours a year with an expert on geriatric care who will go into a private house or nursing home and take stock of the situation, interview home-health aides and doctors as needed, and even taste a facility's food. The firm also offers a referral service and lunchtime seminars on topics from Alzheimer's disease to Medicare Part D. IBM adds perks for Mom and Dad: discounted long-term-care insurance, an ambulance at the touch of a button, and free software on using the Internet.
Granted, most companies have taken much more modest steps. Dependent-care accounts, which allow workers to set aside up to $5,000 pretax for caregiving costs, are among the most common-yet they're typically already in place to help parents cover child care. Another popular perk, according to a random sampling of members by the Society of Human Resource Management: More than 75 percent of respondents bend the rules to allow employees to use sick days to cope with a parent's needs. Online referral services and hotlines save employees time but don't end the homework altogether. Most don't vet the places they recommend, other than checking for state health violations.
Serious commitment is paying off-and in more than just goodwill. Mortgage lender Fannie Mae hired a full-time eldercare consultant in 1999 who will talk to hospital discharge planners for employees, help with living wills and estate planning, and even offer grief counseling after a parent dies. An employee survey found that 28 percent of those who had sought guidance would have had to leave the company without the help. Michelle Stone, senior program manager for dependent-care programs, puts Fannie Mae's savings at hundreds of thousands of dollars, since hiring and training each newcomer costs $10,000 to $15,000.
In a crisis, the most pressing need may simply be time. Two years ago, California implemented the nation's first law mandating paid leave for anyone with a seriously ill parent, spouse, or child. (A federal law requires up to 12 weeks, but it's not paid.) California employers must provide 55 percent of weekly pay, to a maximum of $840, for up to six weeks. Workers finance the plan by contributing $1 to $2.50 per paycheck. About half of states are considering similar laws. "Flexibility is the biggest thing our employees want," says Andrea Moselle, AstraZeneca's senior work-life manager. Some work part time or squeeze five days of work into four; others lug a laptop to the doctor's waiting room. The result of such flextime: Stress and burnout have decreased by a factor of three.
This story appears in the November 27, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.