Susan Rothas, R.N., B.S.N., and Nicole Batsch are project coordinators for the Mather Institute on Aging, the research and education division of Mather LifeWays. Mather Lifeways is a not-for-profit organization that runs senior living communities and provides a variety of services to older adults. In this article, they discuss some of the challenges facing working caregivers – those caring for adults 18 and over – and what businesses can do to help them remain healthy and productive.

Mather Lifeways offers a training program for caregivers called Powerful Tools for Caregivers. Could you say a few words about the program and the issues it addresses?
Susan Rothas: Powerful Tools for Caregivers is a six-week educational course that focuses on the self-care needs of caregivers. The program instructs them on how to care for themselves, decrease their stress and increase their self-confidence. Most importantly, it lets caregivers know that they’re not alone and that it is important for them to care for themselves. Ultimately, it becomes a win-win situation for both the caregiver, in that they don’t burn out, and the care recipient in that, they continue to receive quality care.

What kind of results have you seen thus far from the program?
Rothas: Thus far the results have been phenomenal. What we’re seeing is that it’s increasing caregivers’ self confidence and that they’re incorporating more self-care activities into their daily lives, such as deep breathing and relaxation exercises. We’re seeing students whose levels of stress are decreasing, and they are reporting feeling less depressed after having taken the program. They’re more energized. Many people say they wish they had taken this program earlier.

What is the demographic makeup of today’s caregivers?
Nicole Batsch: The National Alliance for Caregiving just released a huge study on caregiving in the U.S., and they estimate that there are 44.4 million caregivers nationwide. Seven in 10 caregivers (about 69 percent) say they help at least one person. Almost half of all caregivers say that they provide eight hours or less of care, and one in five (17 percent) say they provide more than 40 hours of care per week. A lot of people put in full-time hours on the job and then go home and work another full-time job caring for somebody else. The average length of caregiving is 4.3 years. Somebody with a chronic illness, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can require up to 20 years of care.

To what extent do caregiving issues impact workers?
Rothas: Studies have shown that many people have to adjust their work schedules, so you see increased absenteeism and increased use of family medical leave. They also experience a decrease in productivity due to constant interruptions at work. They’re trying to work and the phone rings and mom’s fallen or the worker that was supposed to come and help bathe dad didn’t show up. These are the kinds of obstacles working caregivers face on a regular basis.

Batsch: According to the National Alliance for Caregiving report, 62 percent of the respondents say that their caregiving responsibilities affected their work. In addition, there are many people who have to leave the workforce altogether, either permanently or for an extended period of time.

How does providing care impact a caregiver’s physical health?
Rothas: Caregiving can take a huge physical and emotional toll on people. A number of studies have shown that caregivers are less likely to take care of themselves and less likely to go to the doctor. As a result, they are more likely to become ill. In addition, stress affects the immune system, so many caregivers are susceptible to colds, flues and other illnesses. In the most extreme case, particularly among those caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, they have a higher mortality rate.

How does eldercare and the well-being of caregivers impact businesses?
Rothas: The absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity resulting from trying to balance work with caregiving all negatively impact the bottom line. Turnover is especially costly, when you consider the time and money spent recruiting and training new employees.

What resources are available for caregivers and are there any that address working caregivers specifically?
Rothas: We are in the midst of translating the Powerful Tools for Caregivers program into an online platform and this version of the program is particularly helpful for working caregivers. We’re just now in the initial pilot stage and should have some data by early 2005.

In addition to that, we would highly recommend that employers seek relationships with their local senior care providers or area agencies on aging. Employers could, for example, partner with local senior care providers to hold educational, brown-bag lunch meetings. I would also recommend the National Eldercare Locator. It provides information on senior care resources across the country.

How can businesses help employees’ better balance work with their caregiving responsibilities?
Rothas: There are a number of things employers could do to help. They should try to provide flexible scheduling wherever possible. Employee benefits such as adult daycare services and long-term-care insurance for family members are extremely helpful. They can also provide access to information, be it through an EAP or human resources. Most importantly, they must recognize the fact that they have employees who are caregivers. Many workers are reticent about discussing their caregiving duties. Employers need to create an open environment where employees feel comfortable talking about their situations.