An increasing number of working adults, particularly women, are taking on the unpaid role of caregiver.
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, women comprise 66 percent of all informal caregiving to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors, and they play many roles while caregiving — hands-on health provider, care manager, friend, companion, surrogate decision-maker and advocate.
Deb Martin of New Haven is among them. Ten years ago, her mother-in-law, Betty Martin, moved in with Deb Martin and her husband, Mike, after Betty had a stroke.
“When Betty moved in, we had a 7-year-old and a 14-year-old at home,” Deb Martin said. But added to those responsibilities was an additional layer of caregiving: Betty's adult daughter, Ann, 41, who has Down syndrome. Ann, who had been living with Betty, now 83, needed a place to stay and people to help care for her, too.
Deb Martin works full time as a hospital nurse and works a part-time second nursing job. Life most days is just a matter of trying to keep it all together.
“I don't know if I really do keep it all together,” Martin said, adding it helps that one of Mike's adult daughters comes frequently to help with Betty, and other family members step in as needed. Mike, who works a day shift, is primary caregiver for his mom when Deb Martin is at work.
“Women are twice as likely as men to spend more than 30 hours a week in a caregiver role for an aging loved one,” said James Sullivan, owner of the Fort Wayne franchise of Home Instead Senior Care. “All too often we see working caregivers who feel they have to make a choice between their job and their aging loved one.”
In a recent survey of working female caregivers conducted by Home Instead, 91 percent said they had to take action to accommodate being an employee and a caregiver, such as taking paid time off, switching from full to part time or turning down promotions.
To help address this issue and to provide resources for thousands of women such as Deb Martin, Home Instead has launched a new national public education program called Daughters in the Workplace.
The initiative is providing awareness and practical tips for working women who are providing care for an older adult or an adult child with disabilities. Daughters in the Workplace is also about educating employers, Sullivan said, noting the Home Instead survey found one in four women caregivers reported experiencing stigma for being a caregiver of an older adult compared to caregiving for a child; 23 percent said their supervisor was unsympathetic.
“For years, everything was about supporting employees who have kids,” Sullivan said — helping them find child care, giving them flex time and even offering on-site child-care centers. “Now there's a shift, and people are asking, 'Who is going to take care of our elderly.'”
The Daughters in the Workplace initiative aims to spur dialogue between employers and employees about caregiving, which is a gender-neutral issue despite the fact women make up the majority of caregivers for older adults and adults with disabilities, Sullivan said.
"Employers need people to do their jobs," he noted, "but employers are more likely to retain good employees if they are caregiver-friendly.”
Employers who ignore — or worse, reprimand — employees struggling with caregiving responsibilities pay a hefty price: Several studies suggest the cost to U.S. businesses due to caregiving may exceed $29 billion to $33 billion per year.
A national study by MetLife Mature Market Institute, the National Alliance for Caregiving and The National Center on Women and Aging found one third of working women decreased their work hours when they took on the role of caregiver; nearly one in three passed up a job promotion, training or assignment; 22 percent took a leave of absence; 16 percent quit their jobs; and 13 percent retired early.
Deb Martin is grateful her employer, Parkview Health, has shown empathy and understanding. Still, life is a balancing act and some days there just seems to be too many balls in the air.
“I've gotten phone calls while in training and had to leave,” Martin said, because Betty, who has significant communication issues since the stroke, was upset and agitated about a situation. “I've missed work because Betty's been sick, and I had to take her into the hospital."
Martin works 12-hour shifts at the hospital.
“Ann and Betty have very different services,” Martin said, noting, with Ann, arranging transportation is an issue. The Martins frequently pay out of pocket for transportation for Ann, who goes to Easter Seals Arc three days a week and receives some community-based integration services through a Medicaid waiver. But little things for other families can be obstacles for the Martins, such as the fact Ann is afraid of stairs and Betty is showing signs of dementia.
“We see a lot of issues of stress in caregivers,” Sullivan said, noting that stress can reduce productivity and can lead to increased sickness and absenteeism and overall high costs for employers.
“This issue is not going away,” Sullivan said of the growing number of employees juggling care responsibilities for aging family members. “The future care of our nation's elderly is going to have to be a partnership between the family, employers and businesses that provide services to those who need them. Let's start thinking about this. It's the only way it's going to work.”
Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.
Caregiver-friendly workplace tips
Home Instead's Daughters in the Workplace initiative offers these suggestions for helping employers to create a caregiving-friendly workplace:
* Train managers on work-family policies and laws; encourage management to think outside the box when the work-family policy just can't apply and empower them to show empathy toward caregiver employees when they need flex time to care for an elderly parent.
* Give caregiving for parents the same weight and flexibility as caring for children. This means including caregiving for parents in any language outlining family-leave policies.
* Authorize the use of sick time and personal time for caregiving.
* Larger companies should offer an employee assistance program that can help find home care, assisted living or hospice resources. Smaller businesses can provide lists of local resources and providers.
* Cross-train employees so if an emergency occurs, other employees can fill in.