The High Cost of Caregiving

You may or may not be familiar with the story of Kristian Rex, a New Jersey man who cares for his elderly father, a former boat captain who once had “arms like Popeye” and who now — thanks to a debilitating stroke — is unable to perform basic, daily routines such as shaving himself. As shown in a recent award-winning commercial (for Gillette, no less), Rex Jr. must perform these and other tasks for his dad, and he does so with care and grace, as any good son would.

Many of us will find ourselves in Rex Jr.’s shoes one day, as the number of elderly in the U.S. continues to grow. In fact, an estimated 40 million Americans already serve as family caregivers and of those, 24 million juggle those responsibilities with holding down a job (Rex Jr. is a bit of an outlier, as women make up the majority of caregivers for elderly parents.) Nearly one in five adult children provide care for at least one elderly parent at some point, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. These caregivers spend an average of 77 hours per month with their parents, the Center finds, or the equivalent of about two weeks of work. Caregiving also exacts a mental and physical toll on health, with women caregivers reporting more pain and significantly higher out-of-pocket costs for their own healthcare, a study by the Center for Retirement Research finds. The study also finds that both male and female caregivers say they’re more depressed and suffer from poorer health because of parental care.

Many employers recognize the burden that caregiving employees shoulder: A new survey by the Northeast Business Group on Health (undertaken in partnership with AARP) finds that more than three quarters of the 129 mostly large employers surveyed agree that caregiving will grow in importance to their companies over the next five years. Respondents cited increased productivity, decreased absenteeism and reduced healthcare costs as the top drivers that would make a compelling case for investing in benefits that would make them “caregiver friendly” organizations.

“Family caregiving is an issue that affects the vast majority of us,” says AARP Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond. “We are either caregivers now, have been in the past, will be in the future or will need care ourselves.”

Fewer than half of the companies surveyed have programs or benefits designed specifically for caregivers, such as caregiver support groups, subsidized in-home back-up care for those being cared for, or counseling services. For those that do make such offerings available, communication appears to be an issue, with most saying their employees are only “somewhat” or “not very” aware of these benefits and services.

Plenty of compelling reasons exist for employers to get serious now about offering — and communicating — these services.

“The implications of this trend are significant not only for workplace productivity but for employee population health and healthcare costs,” says Dr. Jeremy Nobel, Executive Director of NEBGH’s Solutions Center. “Caregivers tend to abandon their own physical and emotional needs and employers need to plan for how to respond.”