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Dementia in the Workplace: a Multi-Sided Challenge

 

Much has been written about the Boomers as the “sandwich” generation: having to care for children and, with more frequency, aging parents – sometimes simultaneously. Now, however, with people working longer and delaying retirement comes a different, growing workplace challenge, adding perhaps another “layer” to that sandwich.

Increasingly, older working Americans are now caring in greater numbers for their elderly parents, often afflicted with dementia. Indeed, with the rate of early-onset dementia also increasing, employees (and, by extension, their employers) are finding that some also need to care for their spouses, and possibly even for themselves.

A 2013 article from U.S. News & World Report probed the multi-sided impact Alzheimer’s disease (and other forms of dementia) is having on the workplace. First, there are the hard facts:

  • Five million American seniors have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a figure expected to spike to 6.7 million in the 10 years following the article (and at least double that number by 2040).
  • Concurrently, 15% of U.S. workers are currently, or have been, caregivers to someone with a form of dementia.

The good news for this population is that roughly half of them have been able to continue working. More to the point, most working caregivers will need to continue working for financial and other reasons, as the need for at-home elder care continues to grow.

Companies – particularly larger ones with more abundant resources – are responding to the situation by making workplace accommodations and offering more in the way of benefits for employees who are caring for dependent, non-children family members. 

It’s in employers’ best interest to offer valued staffers more options and flexibility to be able to keep doing their jobs. Employees with elderly parents are likely to be older, more experienced workers, and companies stand to lose that knowledge if these individuals are forced into retirement.

Also, helping employees find reliable care for their dependents means they will stay more focused and productive on the job. One large employer, Ernst & Young, has developed an elder care program, with a referral network for care providers, discounted rates for finding care, and even emergency back-up care. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), more companies are starting to offer long-term care insurance as a benefit, with some firms even subsidizing the coverage as they do other types of insurance.

A Bias Toward Child Care

At the same time, most workplace care-giving benefits are still designed primarily for employees needing child care, according to SHRM stats. It may be a while before companies start to let people bring an elderly parent to work in an emergency, in the same way that roughly a third of companies allow working parents to bring children to work in a pinch.

Referrals for adoption assistance, child care and extended Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave in order to care for children are all more commonplace than comparable benefits for elder care. As was the case with offspring care, the economics of the cost/benefit analysis will likely dictate the need to attract and retain valued employees who require (or soon will) elder care as well.

An Ernst & Young executive quoted in the article points out that while costs for family care are rising, “…research and referral services for backup child and adult care are very inexpensive.” She went on to quote prices of 25 cents per month per employee for Web-based research and referral services; and about double that rate for telephonic research and referral services.

A senior SHRM benefits and compensation manager quoted in the same piece offers a reminder that companies need to educate their employees on benefits that are already offered. Nearly three-quarters of companies offer their work force dependent-care flexible spending accounts, but comparatively few workers seem to know that the accounts can be used for elder, as well as child, care. Similarly, many are also unaware that they can take FLMA leave to care for parents as well as offspring.

“Women’s Work”

An Inside Counsel article from 2014 also offers an interesting perspective on dementia and the workplace. In many ways, women are still the primary caregivers in most families (although men are increasingly sharing in such duties), and that extends to elder care as well. To make matters worse, women are twice as likely to develop dementia as their male counterparts, which sets up a number of interesting challenges for employers who need to accommodate their employees as both caregivers and patients of the disease.

Most American industries no longer have a mandatory retirement age, which provides protection for older workers. Thanks in part to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which recently observed its 25th anniversary, dementia is classified as a disability, which offers protection against discrimination for afflicted employees.

However, it’s a double-edge sword: The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations or adjustments” to help disabled workers cope with workplace challenges to their disabilities, but that doesn’t prevent (or exempt) managers and HR departments from addressing performance issues that may be attributable to dementia.  

The goal of disability accommodation is to help disabled workers perform up to the level of their non-disabled co-workers. Although employees with dementia are protected from discrimination, avoiding stigmas associated with the disease may be a more a slippery slope. Then, too, many organizations are in uncharted waters when it comes to best practices for dealing with dementia or employees caring for loved ones with the disease.

FLMA-mandated unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks per calendar year (for employees with a year or more of full-time service) may prove to be an organization’s best friend in terms of caregiver/workers’ mental health. Of course, providing caregivers with guaranteed unpaid leave every year doesn’t solve the financial challenges faced by employees needing to take a leave of absence.

Steps Toward Accommodation

One thing is for sure: much more will be written, discussed and debated on the issue of dementia in the workplace going forward. HR professionals will be reaching out for guidance on the issue at industry conferences, symposiums, around the water cooler – this challenge is not going away any time soon.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides a handy, one-page primer on Alzheimer’s disease. It’s part of a series issued by JAN that’s designed to help employers comply with Title I of the ADA is it pertains to different disabilities. In addition to a brief background about Alzheimer’s, the paper provides actual workplace scenarios of people affected by the disease; practical suggestions for helping afflicted employees work more effectively; and other helpful hints for workplace accommodation and ADA compliance.

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