The number of U.S. workers struggling to care for ill or aging loved ones is growing fast. But the support they need isn’t.
One in five workers today are caring for aging, disabled, or chronically ill loved ones, according to the AARP. That’s some 26 million people, many of whom are distracted at work, have high rates of absenteeism, and often end up quitting their jobs because they simply can’t do it all. To put that into perspective, there were roughly 4 million babies born in the U.S. in 2015, so even if each child had two working parents, that adds up to no more than 8 million adult parents juggling child care with work duties.
Lawmakers, activists, and progressive businesses are absolutely right to push for expanded paid parental leave to support those parents. But in the meantime, family caregivers tend to get pushed to the margins of the national conversation—and not just those employees, but the companies they work for, too.
MOUNTING CHALLENGES, MULTIPLE VICTIMS
The AARP estimates that a caregiving employee costs a company $2,000 per year in lost productivity, which means the caregiver liability impacts both a company’s bottom line and talent retention. And the majority of family caregivers are women, making this issue one of the biggest yet least discussed obstacles in achieving gender equality.
And yet today’s large and silent caregiving crisis seems benign compared to what our country will face over the next several years. The U.S. will soon have the largest elderly population in its history.
The World Health Organization expects older adults, including with chronic conditions like diabetes and dementia, to live longer than ever before. The majority of older Americans currently live independently, often far from family members. That means families will struggle mightily to navigate chronic and elder care from afar, and all the bureaucratic, financial, and logistical challenges that come with it.
In other words, pretty much everyone stands to lose from a crisis like this—businesses, workers, and the loved ones in need of care.
WHERE CURRENT POLICIES FALL SHORT
So far, the solutions that most companies are able to offer are those mandated by the federal Family Medical Leave Act and similar state-level measures, a legal framework from which millions of employees (especially part-time workers and employees of small businesses) are exempt. And while parental leave policies vary tremendously from one employer to the next, new parents have nine months to prepare and then months to adjust to their new lives. What’s more, parenthood is mostly an exciting journey, one from which people derive tremendous joy.
Helping with seriously ill, aging, or disabled loved ones couldn’t be more different. The tens of million Americans who find themselves caring for somebody rarely receive advance notice that they’ll need to do so. And there’s no joy or excitement in that discovery—often it comes with complex emotions like guilt, resentment, and fear.
Offering more paid time off to care for a sick or aging loved one isn’t the solution. Caregivers, more than anything, dream of offloading and outsourcing components of the process. Few have the energy to fight for health care reimbursements, find the right in-home aide, schedule doctor’s appointments, and refill prescriptions, all without letting their careers suffer.
Weeks off from work won’t help caregivers gain the expertise or comfort needed to handle family members’ complex and evolving needs. Plus, most caregiving situations last for months, years, and even decades. As a family caregiver for my mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 27 years ago (and as the CEO of a company that helps families manage complex and elder care), I’ve become painfully aware of how stressful, distracting, costly, and all-consuming family caregiving is for my team members and me.
We need support programs that allow family caregivers to remain in the workforce. It’s unlikely that the outcome of the presidential election will change things in the near-term. In the meantime, there are a few ways companies can improve their support to caregiving employees. For starters, they can subsidize or cover services like backup and respite care. Short of making those investments, employers can train and equip managers to know how to have the right conversations with their team members and even provide concierge-like support to take the research and administrative stress off of working caregivers. Sometimes just offering information and resources can go a long way. And for employers, these aren’t just nice things to do. Helping working caregivers contributes directly to a corporation’s bottom line.
November isn’t just the month of a deeply consequential presidential election. It’s also Caregiver Awareness Month. We need to start talking about our country’s looming caregiver crisis, and companies need to start dealing with it. Ten years from now, we’ll look back on this time as the calm before the storm. Companies that help their workers shoulder this burden will win the hearts and minds of their employees and shareholders alike.
Lindsay Jurist-Rosner is the cofounder and CEO of Wellthy, a modern care concierge that supports and relieves the 66 million Americans who care for sick and aging loved ones.