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Advice for Those Taking Leave To Care for an Aging Parent

By Loring N. Spolter

While on a leave of absence to care for a father with Alzheimer's disease and a mother who suffered a stroke and heart ailments, Chris Schultz expected compassion from his employer, not a pink slip.

Mr. Schultz, who worked for 25 years in the maintenance department at Christ Hospital and Medical Center in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, Ill., had been the first nonphysician his employer had honored as the year's "MVP Employee." He received the commendation shortly after being named employee of the month. While his photograph was displayed in the hospital lobby with the MVP designation, supervisors fired Mr. Schultz, citing write-ups for not performing his duties during leaves of absence he was given to assist his ailing parents.

Mr. Schultz sued, alleging he had been terminated in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law permitting employees to miss up to 12 weeks of work when they or immediate family members confront serious health conditions. In 2002, jurors determined Mr. Schultz's employer not only violated FMLA but did so in bad faith, which typically leads to 200% reimbursement for lost wages. Jurors decided that Christ Hospital also violated Illinois employment laws and awarded an additional $11.5 million for emotional pain and suffering. The hospital settled for an amount that remains confidential, according to Charles Siedlecki, the Chicago attorney who represented Mr. Shultz.

If asked what comes to mind when hearing the phrase "caregiver," most people wouldn't visualize a 45-year-old maintenance employee providing assistance to aging parents. But Mr. Schultz is typical of caregivers today, according to Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association, a Kensington, Md., not-for-profit education and advocacy organization. While the typical caregiver is in her 40s and caring for a parent, 44% are male.

When FMLA took effect in 1993, many employers anticipated nearly all the requests for leaves of absence would be made by employees confronting their own serious health concerns, women taking leave to give birth or care for ill children, and to a lesser extent, employees needing time off to help ailing spouses.

But FMLA also permits employees to secure leaves of absence to assist parents who, while living in their own homes or being treated in hospitals, rehabilitation centers or other facilities, are unable to care for their own basic medical, hygienic, safety or nutritional needs or who would benefit psychologically by a family member providing comfort or reassurance during treatment of a serious health condition.

Additionally, FMLA permits family members to take leave from work to fill in for other caretakers, provide transportation to health-care providers, or to make arrangements for changes in care, such as transferring a parent to a nursing home.

Americans, it turns out, are generous with their time as caregivers. Forty-four million adults (one in five) provide unpaid caregiving help to others at some time during a given year, according to a joint study by The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.

Elderly parents formed the largest category of recipients receiving help from caregivers. Of 1,200 adult caregivers interviewed, 36% were assisting a parent, while just 6% were caring for a spouse and another 6% were helping in the treatment or recuperation of adult and minor children.

Caregiving is time consuming, taking an average of 20 hours per week, according to the U.S. Department of Health. Five million caregivers provide assistance to persons with dementia, a further indication of the number of adults caring for aging parents.

Ms. Mintz says caregiving can be stressful and will become more so due to a convergence of demographic factors. Our aging parents will live longer than senior citizens of prior decades. In 1950, a person who reached 65 year of age would likely live an additional 13.9 years, according to U.S. government statistics. By 1985, that number increased to 16.7 years, and, by 2001, 65-year-olds could expect to live another 18.1 years.

With their increasing lifespans, older persons will have longer to become vulnerable to age-related ailments requiring caregiving assistance from sons and daughters -- who often will be not so young themselves. More employees in their middle-age and senior years will have at least one living parent who will need their caregiving assistance at various times. Health-care advances, elimination of mandatory retirement at age 65 and economic forces have influenced retirement plans of older employees, so that many now work long past the retirement ages of prior generations.

Ms. Mintz's forecast means that many older workers will take FMLA leave at ages beyond when their predecessors had exited the work force: Employees in their 60s will seek leave to help parents in their mid-80s or older. The first wave of baby boomers are now in their late 50s. Already, people over 85 are the fastest growing segment of the population by age, the Census Bureau reports. It's possible that even employees in their 70s will need FMLA leave to assist aged parents. As Ms. Mintz puts it, "the old will be caring for the even older."

The reduced size of families will place further stress on caregivers, Ms. Mintz predicts. Baby boomers typically had fewer children than their parents, meaning that most boomers have fewer siblings who can share parental caregiving duties than their parents did. Assuming each family's siblings divide the caregiving responsibilities equally, Ms. Mintz foresees "fewer caregivers to go around, and we'll all have to share the caring more." If her predictions hold true, employers can expect baby boomers to take more FMLA leave days more frequently.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated each of the 3,565 complaints received from people claiming their employers disregarded FMLA requirements. Investigators determined that employers failed to adhere to FMLA's rules in 46% of cases reviewed, down from 49% the prior year. The most common complaints were refusals to reinstate employees taking FMLA leave, interfering with taking it and retaliating against those returning.





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