As the population ages, more and more adults are engaged in caregiving. A recent American study found that nearly half of all family caregivers perform significant medical or nursing tasks for their relatives. Most commonly this includes giving prescription medications; it may also involve bandaging wounds, preparing special diets, and even assuring the smooth operation of medical devices such as ventilators or feeding tubes. And nearly half of all family caregivers are employed outside the home, with the vast majority between the ages of 35 and 64. Moreover, it’s not just women who are the caregivers: 56% are women but 44% are men. They all report that their caregiving responsibilities are stressful, and the greater the number of medical or nursing tasks they perform, the greater the stress.
Picking up on this theme, the AARP Public Policy Institute has written a position paper urging employers to recognize the toll taken by family caregiving and to do something about it. In particular, the authors support giving caregivers flexible hours, paid sick leave, and family leave. They recommend offering on-site support groups and referrals to community-based home care agencies. Such measures, AARP argues, can enhance productivity, lower absenteeism, and decrease a company’s costs. In particular, it’s a great deal more expensive to hire and train a new employee than to invest a little in a current employee. In fact, these outcomes are not merely theoretical; they’ve been shown to work, unlike some of the current efforts of companies to promote preventive health care among their workers.
Linking essential benefits to employment can be problematic: the decision to tie health insurance to one’s job, a decision made in order to circumvent wage controls during WW II, led to an almost exclusive relationship between health insurance and work, and to 47 million uninsured Americans. Only gradually is this connection unraveling. But in this era of shrinking government, creation of an expensive new social program for caregivers, irrespective of employment status, seems highly unlikely. Asking corporations to shoulder some of the responsibility is a reasonable way forward. It’s in their interest, it’s in the interest of their employees, and it’s in the interest of the millions of older people who rely on their families to meet their basic needs.