Can you care for an elderly parent and still succeed at work?

elder care
African American woman helping father use walker
Photo: Terry Vine—Getty Images/Blend Images

Dear Annie: I’m hoping you and your readers can offer some suggestions. I’m in middle management at a financial services company and my performance has always been great—I’ve been promoted twice in four years—until recently. My parents, who are in their late 80s, have moved to a town nearby to be closer so that I can help them out. They’re in an assisted-living facility, but I need to go with them to doctors’ appointments, stop by to check on them, and make sure they have groceries and medications.

The problem is, my company doesn’t allow flexible hours or telecommuting, and my boss has started making pointed remarks about the times when I am unavoidably late or have to leave early, once or twice a week. A few of my colleagues are dealing with similar situations, so we’re wondering if we have any options, or any legal rights. None of us wants to go work somewhere else to get flextime. Your thoughts? —Save Our Sanity

Dear S.O.S.: Cold comfort though it may be, you and your coworkers are part of a growing national trend. To put your predicament in perspective, a few statistics: about 40 million Americans, most aged 40 to 59, now are helping at least one elderly parent with the tasks of daily living, says a Pew Research study, and, although most caregivers are women, about 45% are men. Moreover, AARP research says most caregivers have jobs, but 70% are obliged to “make workplace adjustments”—coming in late or leaving early, for instance.

Yet it seems many employers haven’t caught on. Consider: a scant 5% offers a referral service to employees looking for eldercare resources, according to the 2014 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resources Management. Fewer than 1% offers benefits like geriatric counseling or backup eldercare services for emergencies.

As for your legal rights, they’re a bit sketchy. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its state counterparts say employers have to keep your job open for you if you take an unpaid leave of absence to deal with family issues. In some instances, the time off “can be intermittent, rather than continual, and in increments as small as 15 minutes,” says Steven Bernstein, a partner at employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. “But that doesn’t apply in every situation.”

A few cities, including Milwaukee, Tampa, Washington D.C., and Atlanta, have passed local statutes prohibiting “family responsibility discrimination.” Since most caregivers are female, the Equal Opportunity Commission and the courts have also found that some federal and state laws against sex bias apply in these matters.

But for the most part, although caregivers may soon gain more legal protection, this is still “an evolving area,” Bernstein says, adding that, as 77 million Baby Boomers head into old age, “more people are working into their 70s and taking care of relatives in their 90s. It’s something lawmakers, and employers, will have to start recognizing.”

No doubt, if only because eldercare problems are expensive. A 2010 report from MetLife says, for instance, that caregiving costs U.S. businesses from $17 billion to $34 billion annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, and higher medical expenses for stressed-out caregivers.

So, what can you and your coworkers do now, short of quitting? First, says Jody Gastfriend, vice president of senior services at benefits firm, “There is power in numbers.” She suggests you go as a group to speak with someone in your company’s HR department about the need for flextime.

“Flexible hours are the No. 1 issue here,” she notes, adding that no one is likely to be surprised by your request. “Flextime has become a national conversation, so it’s easier to bring up than it used to be.”

At the same time, you need to lay your cards on the table with your boss. “Managers now have so many things to contend with, they can’t know what you’re dealing with unless you tell them,” says Lisa Bull, director of training and development at Ceridian LifeWorks. She says most bosses are willing to work out flexible hours with a valued employee and that “even a little bit of flexibility can go a long way” in taking some of the pressure off, or at least cutting down on the “pointed remarks” you’ve been receiving.

You should also take a close look at your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Bull adds, to see if there are available eldercare resources.

“Most people don’t even know the range of what their employer’s EAP provides, until they need to use it,” she notes. Some EAPs will at least connect you with local government agencies and nonprofits that offer eldercare information and support, or with organizations like the National Alliance for Caregiving or the Family Caregiver Alliance.

For what it’s worth to you now, Bull predicts that more employers will start to offer help with eldercare before too long, because “it’s becoming a huge tool for attracting and retaining talent, especially among Millennials, who put a high priority on work-life balance.”

So do Boomers. Not surprisingly for a company in the benefits business, Ceridian LifeWorks offers its employees flextime, a generous EAP, and other support for caregivers. And since Bull is taking care of both a 76-year-old parent and a 14-year-old child, she says, “If I were looking for a job somewhere else, I’d look for those same benefits. I’d have no choice.”

Talkback: Does your company offer flextime or other eldercare assistance? If you’re a caregiver, what helps you get your job done? Leave a comment below.

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