The benefits of Employer flexibility and support for caregivers in the workplace

Within days of learning she was pregnant with her second child, Barb Brzezicki faced the unfolding of an unexpected and harrowing chapter in her family’s life: her mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease.

The working mother was suddenly balancing pregnancy with caring for her young daughter and her mother, Stella — starting to drive her to and from appointments in the weeks before Christmas in 2009.

What’s more, Brzezicki became sick and ended up on disability, all of which she believed was stress-induced.

By around May or June of last year, Brzezicki realized she could no longer manage on her own and enlisted outside help. Jeanne Ireland, a companion with the home care company Nurse Next Door, has been a presence in their lives for the last eight months.

“I love my mom but I became, `Today we’ve got to do this, and tomorrow we’ve got to do that,'” Brzezicki recalled, sitting in the living room of her home in a quiet west-end Toronto neighborhood, steps away from her mother’s house next door.

“I wasn’t enjoying the relationship of being a daughter….We totally lost that,” she added, her voice breaking, dabbing away tears.

The experiences of the 37-year-old are undoubtedly common in thousands of households among Canadians and Americans alike, comprising the “sandwich generation,” and their ranks will likely swell as boomers approach retirement age.

The Desjardins Financial Security National Survey released last year provides some details about the adults shouldering numerous caregiving and work responsibilities.

Interviews were conducted with nearly 1,800 adults. Findings revealed 13 per cent of respondents were assisting their parents with daily domestic and/or psychological needs, while seven per cent were financially supporting their parents and/or kids simultaneously. Of those helping their parents, 47 per cent of respondents said it was a significant source of stress for them.

Nurse Next Door co-founder John DeHart said when they started nine years ago about 75 per cent of the callers were seniors inquiring about how the company could help. Today, DeHart said the same percentage of calls is now coming from the caregiving child, usually the daughter. The average client age is around 75, while the daughter, usually in her 40s or early 50s is often raising kids of her own, he noted.

DeHart admits that even though he owned and ran a company caring for parents, he never thought of the same thing happening to him. He recalled receiving a call “out of the blue” and being told his father had terminal cancer and only two months to live.

“Whether it’s a call like that, or you start noticing (that) your parents, they need that help, they’re starting to become isolated in their home, they’re starting to perhaps not eat well enough because they’re not getting out shopping, then perhaps it’s time to step in because it will affect everyone,” he said from Vancouver. “It’s inevitable that it will happen if you have living parents today.”

Yet too many families don’t communicate about future care needs and “avoid the conversation,” DeHart said.

“We always say if Mom or Dad is around 70 years old, it’s time to have this conversation now because something is going to happen at some point, and the more you’re prepared for it now, the less burdensome it is when it does happen.”

Brzezicki said Ireland is able to help with everything from picking up hair dye for Stella to taking her mother to medical appointments. She has also helped with efficiencies in their daily lives, for instance, by getting pills delivered from the drugstore.

Brzezicki still sees her mother three to four times daily, ensures she’s eaten, has her required medications and everything else she needs. Yet she’s thankful to have a hand in caring for her mother.

With Jeanne, being able to take my mom out and do the little stuff that I can’t get to, it’s a huge help.”

Some people may not be able to afford a full-time caregiver and must take on a few responsibilities themselves. In that situation, individuals need to be properly trained to care for someone, and learn how to lift a patient, for instance, so nobody gets injured.For those working outside the home, carving out time off to tend to an elder relative may pose an overwhelming challenge.

Compassionate care benefits and Family Medical Leave of Absence (FMLA) are available for up to a maximum of six weeks if individuals are required to be absent from work to care for a gravely ill family member at risk of dying within 26 weeks. But for many families, elder care can be a responsibility extending over a far longer period of time.

There’s “definitely reluctance” on the part of caregivers to elderly parents to talk to employers about taking time off. Especially now in our current economy when so many are afraid of losing their jobs.

“If you had a sick child you wouldn’t have that reluctance, but somehow when it comes to aging parents it doesn’t seem to be as socially acceptable,” experts say.

But a lot of corporations have taken a pretty proactive role to do lunch and learn sessions and start to recognize that if they can educate their employees on these realities and how they can start to reach out for help, it keeps them mentally and physically at work.

Why is it that other types of family care situations aren’t as well formalized and entrenched in the benefits system as maternity leave or parental care leave?

Creating a culture within companies where people wouldn’t feel fearful for asking for time off would benefit both the employer and the employee, noted Verma, a professor of industrial relations and human resources at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“In those cases it can be very powerful because everyone’s need is different, and at the end of the day there’s organizational need,” he said. “Flexibly allocating staff could perhaps help to meet that need.”

Of course, it cannot be done in every job, in every situation, and there will be situations where the employers may … say: `You know we cannot accommodate this need.’ But the point is that if there is flexibility and understanding on both sides, then a lot can be accomplished.


The Canadian Press, March 2011

About Sue Salach

Sue has a Master's degree in Gerontology and has worked with the elderly and their families for over 30 years and is the Author of "Along Comes Grandpa", a caregiving resource guide, and the novel "If I Walked in Her Shoes". As an ElderCare Expert and Keynote Speaker, Sue employs her comprehensive experience and passion, to educate and promote self-care values to family caregivers and the community at large.
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