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Elder Care: A Growing Concern


Workplace experts have been saying for years that elder care would eventually step out of the shadow of child care to become a key work-and-family issue in corporations.

At DuPont, that moment may have arrived.

Recently, the human-relations folks at the chemicals giant examined statistics from its latest periodic survey of employees. They discovered nearly half the respondents -- 49% -- either currently have elder-care responsibilities or expect to in the near future.

AGING POPULATION. That's a significant jump from five years ago, when 40% in the company's last work/life survey reported they had or faced elder-care duties. "Our population is aging," says Richard A. Vintigni, the company's principle work/life consultant. "Employees' needs are beginning to shift. It's representative of what most companies in the U.S. are facing now."

The graying of America isn't the only reason the issue is emerging in the workplace, says Donna L. Wagner, a professor of gerontology at Towson University near Baltimore. Another is a cutback in the length of hospital stays covered by health insurance, which means more responsibility is being placed on families to tend to the old and sick, she says.

As a result, employers are beginning to pay more attention to the needs of employees who may be balancing a job with care of a parent or other older relative. In 1993, some 20% of large employers answering a survey from Hewitt Associates reported that they offered elder-care benefits. By 1999, that figure had jumped to 47%. Nonetheless, it's child care that still receives the most corporate attention: 90% of respondents told Hewitt they offered child-care benefits in 1999.

TIME-CONSUMING. The DuPont survey, of some 3,700 of the company's 54,000 U.S. employees, was conducted last June. It found that 14% of the respondents were providing care for an older member of the family. Another 35% said they expected to be doing so in three to four years. Of those currently juggling elder-care responsibilities, 49% reported spending six hours a week or more on such tasks.

Apparently theirs isn't an easy job. Fully 85% reported "some" or "great" difficulty finding quality care, while 84% had trouble locating care that was affordable. Similarly high percentages -- above 70% -- cited difficulty finding companion, adult-day-care, transportation, home-health, and homemaker services.

DuPont already has a resource and referral service to assist employees in finding programs to help aging relatives. Prodded by the new statistics, Vintigni says the company plans to launch a series of employee focus groups to explore elder-care needs and how the company might respond. It was a similar set of focus groups, after the company's first work/life study in 1985, that helped spur a number of child-care programs at the company.

Given the huge wave of aging baby-boomers now in the U.S. workforce, many more companies are likely to soon be faced with figuring out their role in elder care -- just as children of elderly parents are figuring out theirs. By Pam Mendels in New York


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