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Today there are 16 million employed caregivers. A1997 study by the National Alliance for Care Giving and AARP put the loss of wages and productivity due to employees taking time off work to deal with problems of their parents or older relatives at $11 billion per year.

Miriam Oriensis-Torres, co-founder of Geriatric Support Associates in Milwaukee, puts that figure closer to $29 billion annually.

"We’ve seen studies that report 42% of full-time employees expect to be providing eldercare by this year. Employers don’t have to feel helpless, however," she says. "Care management firms, county elderly services departments, agencies on aging, community outreach groups and other care providers are willing to help educate you and your workforce. This makes your employees more productive on the job and saves your business money."

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Tom Henley, community relations outreach coordinator at The Village at Manor Park, in West Allis, agrees.

"The time to make a critical decision is not in the middle of a critical crisis," he says. With more people in America turning 60 than there are babies being born every day, the time to get started is now."

Talk it over, over lunch

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There are several ways to help employees prepare for their own old age (or incapacity) and deal with their parents’ needs, but an effective way, Henley suggests, is to offer a series of brown bag discussion groups. Topics to cover include:

— Why paperwork should be in order (wills, durable powers of attorney, financial records, insurance papers, etc.).

— What you should know if something happens to a parent (where papers are, health history, medication list, names of doctors and preferred hospitals, etc.).

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— The importance of having long-term care insurance, what it should cover, when to get it, and questions to ask of suppliers.

— Government programs for the elderly – "There are a lot of misconceptions about what Medicare covers and a lack of understanding of how Medical Assistance (Title 19) works," Henley pointed out. "There are also county-administered Community Option Programs that can subsidize housing expenses, and many county services for the elderly many people don’t know are available."

— Services — non-medical and medical — available that allow people to remain in their homes as long as possible.

— The difference between housing options (independent living, life-care, assisted living, community-based residential facilities, nursing homes, etc.) for when at-home care is no longer desirable or possible.

— Transition to new housing – senior real estate specialists can discuss their services, explain how property liquidators and moving companies can help relieve the burden of moving/disposing of 30 to 50 years of "stuff."

— Safety issues to be alert for, helpful health aids (such as grab bars and raised toilet seats) and even the growing telemedicine field where people can interact with their doctors over the Internet.

— Respite and adult day care options.

— Support groups for caregivers and/or the person beingcared for.

— What a care manager does.

— How to be an advocate for the elderly (or for just your parents).

— Signs that point to the need for intervention.

— How to talk with elderly parents and what you should discuss about their wishes, plans and health care.

— Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia.

Other solutions

Henley also says his facility and others specializing in eldercare can provide training to human resources staff so they can assist employees.

"We can help you develop an eldercare employee assistance program, set up a resource library, provide on-line resource information and give referral assistance," he explains.

Henley notes that "the people most affected by aging parents and older relatives are the 40- to 60-year-old managers – employees you can least afford to have missing work or quitting because they need time to deal with their loved ones’ problems."

April 18, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee, By Kay Falk, for SBT

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