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How Alzheimer's Will Change Your Workplace

Danielle Kurtzleben

If employers want to see the future of the workforce, they need look no further than Pat Zajdel. A fifty-something telecommunications account manager at George Washington University, Zajdel noticed a few years ago that her husband had begun acting strangely. As his condition quickly deteriorated, two things became clear: he was exhibiting signs of dementia, and Pat's working life was going to suffer because of it.

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She describes his time in a rehabilitation facility as a period of regular interruption. "It was back and forth to there, and I would get calls that there was a situation, and I'd have to leave work right away."

Zajdel's difficulties are far from unique. A recent survey showed that 15 percent of American workers either are or have been caregivers for people with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia, and nearly half of those people say they were able to keep working while caring for their loved ones.

And with baby boomers now in their fifties and early sixties, the phenomenon is likely to grow. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million seniors in the U.S. have Alzheimer's, a figure that is expected to balloon to 6.7 million by 2025. That sets the stage for a shift in America's workplaces, forcing employers to find new ways to accommodate employees who need to care for loved ones.

Boomers are often called a "sandwich generation," caring for both children and aging parents. And as the oldest boomers age, spouses add to the pressures.

"There's three sides to the sandwich. You have your kids, you have your parents, and you also have your spouse," says Linda Barrington, managing director of the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University's school of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Having such tightly sandwiched employees could be a major drag on businesses, as the affected workers will be those who have been around for decades and therefore have deep experience and institutional memory, says Barrington. If they feel the pressure to quit, it could mean a major blow to the employers that depend on their skills.

It's not just a question of keeping employees at the office; workers whose minds are at work and not at home with their ailing relatives are more productive workers. Zajdel has hired an in-home care provider to stay with her husband during the day, but she says that even the few hours each morning when her husband is home alone leave her on edge, and she acknowledges that the worry can eat into her productivity.

"Because I leave for work by seven in the morning, and his care service starts at 10, I have a certain amount of anxiety until 10, when they get there," she says.

Having an in-home provider helped Pat stay at work--both physically and mentally--and companies are catching on that this benefit.

One major corporation says that providing elder care assistance is a matter of attracting and keeping the best workers.

"We look at this as part of our total rewards package to our people," says Mary Stringfield, national director of accounting firm Ernst & Young's rewards and benefits program. "We look at it as a recruiting and retention factor as well, because we know that the people who are able to somehow try to maintain some semblance of order in their personal lives, family lives, [and] work lives are much more loyal employees to our firm."

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Stringfield says she's used Ernst & Young's elder care program, which offers referrals to care providers, discounted rates, and access to an emergency backup care provider. The goal is to help workers to continue their work uninterrupted, says Stringfield. The company also offers subsidized backup care to employees working "beyond typical business hours."

The nation's shifting demographics are clearly pushing companies into offering more options for their workers, says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.

"We're starting to see an increase in companies offering long-term care insurance, which is another means to obtain some sort of elder care type of benefit," he says, adding that some companies subsidize that coverage.

Still, relatively few workplaces offer programs specifically directed at assisting with elder care. Indeed, workplace norms are skewed slightly more toward accommodating workers with children. According a 2012 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, a large array of family-friendly benefits are specifically directed at offspring--nearly one-third of employers allow workers to bring a child to work in an emergency, for example, and many others offer adoption assistance and lactation rooms. While some of these may not translate easily to elder care, there is a clear preference toward children. Seventeen percent of workplaces offer child care referral services, compared to 10 percent that do the same for elder care.

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Similarly, 18 percent of workplaces offer parental leave above federal FMLA leave guidelines, compared to just 10 percent who offer additional elder care leave.

If some workers need these perks to keep working, why don't more businesses provide them? One reason is that for many businesses, the benefits may not outweigh the costs, especially in a still-recovering economy.

"The countervailing force is just the profit pressure," says Barrington. "Officially this recession ended a while ago, but these pressures on employers to reduce labor costs are still there."

With unemployment so high, the labor market currently favors employers--in many fields, they don't need to work as hard to entice workers in their doors.

Still, for firms that both have the means and the need to keep skilled workers around, the pressure is on to provide elder care options. Being an employer that attracts the top talent will increasingly mean helping workers care for their full families, not just their kids, says Barrington.

"The demographics are making this a bigger issue that employers will need to compete on in terms of being the best employer in X class," she says. That "X class" in question might be working women, for example, who tend to take on a majority of family care responsibilities, says Barrington. And that "X class" might include older workers increasingly need to care for relatives and each other.

In addition, Stringfield says that helping employees care for their families need not be prohibitively expensive for employers. "Research and referral services for backup child care and adult care are very inexpensive [at Ernst & Young], approximately 25 cents per month per employee for web-based research and referral services, and about double that (50 cents) for telephonic research and referral services," she writes in an email to U.S. News. She adds that the company spent arund $196,000 in family care expenses in fiscal year 2011, 180 percent higher than the prior year.

Still, while many workers may not see subsidized elder care in their benefits packages anytime soon, workplaces can accommodate an aging population in lower-cost ways. Even referring employees to trusted caregivers can alleviate a lot of headaches, says one expert.

"Part of the burden of caregiving is that you are not only the caregiver but you are also needing to run around and find resources and negotiate with insurance organizations," says Alan King, president of Workplace Options, a company that helps employers promote work-life balance.

In addition, says SHRM's Elliott, employers can simply better educate their workers about their options. Nearly three-quarters of workplaces offer dependent care flex spending accounts, but many people don't realize that they can use those accounts for caring for older relatives, in addition to childcare. He adds that employee assistance programs, which often are advertised as a way of helping employees seek counseling for themselves, often also can help them find elder care options. Likewise, Elliott says, many people do not know that the Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take unpaid leave for elder relatives, not just children.

Finally, employers can allow for more flexible scheduling, says Elliott. While the new push for working from home is often associated with America's youngest workers, he says, the older cohort may in fact soon be the policy's strongest advocates.

"The Millennials are getting a lot of credit for this, because they're demanding that type of flexibility," says Elliott. "But guess what: the older employees have got Mom and Dad to take care of now that they've raised their kids."

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