Boomers sandwiched between aging parents, children

EAPs can help employers support employees feeling the elder care squeeze

The baby boomers — those aged 45 to 64 — have been called many things over the past few decades — the me generation, the now generation and the peace and love generation. But now they have another moniker: The sandwich generation. They’re a generation with a triple load, caring for children, elderly parents and holding down a job.

According to Statistics Canada, three in 10 people aged 45 to 64 with unmarried children under 25 at home are also caring for an elderly relative. More than eight in 10 of them also work, causing many to reduce or shift their hours or turn down career advancement opportunities. For employers in an age of skilled worker shortages, the issue of elder care can mean a loss of talent, productivity and engagement and an increase in absenteeism, turnover, stress-related illnesses and benefits costs.

The growth of elder care

Seniors constitute the fastest growing population group in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, in 2001 more than 430,000 Canadians were 85 or older — more than twice as many as in 1981 and more than 20 times as many as in 1921. The number of Canadians 85 or older is expected to grow to 1.6 million in 2041 — four per cent of the overall population.

Women are more likely than men to be sandwiched. Statistics Canada found women with elderly relatives spent 29 hours a month providing elder care, more than twice as many as the 13 hours spent by men. The extra hours women spend are often due to the type of care performed — men tend to provide home maintenance and transportation while women are more likely to provide personal care such as cooking, bathing, dressing and housework.

Because many boomers delayed starting families until their 30s or 40s, they’ve found themselves juggling parenting, elder care and work just at that point in their lives when they should be planning for their own retirement. Instead of slowing down, many in the sandwich generation are emotionally and physically exhausted, mentally drained, socially isolated and financially strapped. And if the juggling act becomes too overwhelming, work will be the first thing to go.

Sandwiched employees are more likely to be stressed — 75 per cent compared with 61 per cent of workers with no children or elder-care responsibilities.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are seeing a dramatic increase in overwhelmed employees seeking help with elder-care issues. At Ceridian LifeWorks, the top five issues for those caring for older relatives are:

• caregiver stress;

• senior housing options;

• long-distance caregiving;

• family dynamics; and

• functional needs.

What organizations can do

The business case for supporting employees with elder care responsibilities is compelling. So what can employers do?

First of all, managers need to understand the issues and the different demands of parenting and elder care. Elder care often involves complex illnesses, dementia, sudden, unpredictable and life-altering events and the emotional burdens of bereavement or placing a loved one into an extended care facility.

It can also involve financial and legal issues as well as strain family relationships. And, perhaps most importantly, caring for both children and older relatives can be so demanding that the carer becomes isolated from friends and social connections, which contributes to depression.

Because caregivers’ needs are diverse, managers — and organizations — must be prepared to offer as much flexibility as possible. Flextime, the option to work from home and the ability to take time off when necessary, will go a long way in retaining skilled workers with demanding personal responsibilities.

Building an atmosphere of trust and understanding among managers is important in creating a workplace culture that supports caregivers. Realizing their managers understand and care about their situation — and will do what they can to alleviate their stress — creates loyalty among workers.

And finally, access to an EAP with an extensive elder-care component is also extraordinarily helpful. Elder care has its own unique physical, social, emotional and psychological issues. Consider these questions:

• Where do you find appropriate seniors’ housing?

• How do you know if a parent is exhibiting signs of dementia? How do you cope with dementia?

• Where can someone find financial help for wheelchairs and other assistive devices?

• Are the individual’s legal affairs in order?

• How does a caregiver know when her parent will need extended care?

• Is elder daycare available? Night nursing? Hospice care?

• How can someone be a good parent, a caring child and a productive employee?

An EAP can help answer these questions and provide access to counselling and other resources, thus lifting a great burden off the caregiver and her family.

For the sandwich generation, achieving a balance between their unpaid and paid work is not only an economic issue, it’s a health issue. For employers, it’s about retaining long-term, key employees. For seniors, it’s about dignity and remaining in their homes or with loved ones for as long as possible. Supporting the caregiver at work is a win-win situation for all concerned.

Erika Krett is a life transition specialist with Ceridian LifeWorks in Markham, Ont. She is a registered social worker specializing in gerontology.

Easing the squeeze

Recommendations for sandwiched employees

Markham, Ont.-based employee assistance program (EAP) Ceridian LifeWorks gives the following advice to callers seeking help with elder care:

Get support. If you don’t have the luxury of a large support network, call your EAP or consult your doctor if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Have a family meeting. Get everyone involved together (including the elderly family member) to discuss care options together. Brainstorm ways to make the situation work for everyone. Make a plan for the future ahead of time.

Communicate. Make sure you communicate with your loved one regularly as health issues and needs change. The more you communicate, the less surprises will catch you off guard. Communication at work is also important. Let your manager know that you are dealing with family issues if you need to take time off for your relative. You may be surprised at the support you get.

Know your boundaries. If you are feeling like you need 48, not 24, hours in your day, you are overextended. Every caregiver needs personal time in order to recharge. If you find you don’t have time for this, maybe it’s time to hire a part-time caregiver, or talk with your support network about creating a different care schedule.

Latest stories