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Companies beginning to offer aid for caregivers

Two-thirds of those caring for elderly still work

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Nearly two-thirds of all family caregivers work either full or part time, and an increasing number of companies are realizing that if they don't help employees cope with caregiving responsibilities, they may lose valuable workers.

With an aging population and a majority of women (who are the traditional caregivers) in the work force, demand for employer-provided elder-care benefits is expected to skyrocket in coming years. Already more than 22 million households provide care for an older person.

Nearly half of all large employers — those with more than 1,000 employees — offer some sort of assistance, according to a 2000 survey by Hewitt Associates.

Information and referral services are most common, providing employees with contact numbers to locate needed services. Some such services are little more than phone lists; others include access to counselors.

The gold-plated version is offered by Fannie Mae. Long a model employer with regard to work-life issues, Fannie Mae is the first to offer employees the services of a full-time, on-site social worker to guide them through the maze of elder-care services.

Lisa Yagoda has helped more than 400 Fannie Mae employees during the two years the program has been in effect. Yagoda, an employee of a local community-service organization that formed a partnership with Fannie Mae, helps assess elder relatives' needs, and puts caregivers in touch with appropriate medical, legal, housing and social services.

Then she tells caregivers what questions to ask when interviewing a potential home-care worker or what to look for when visiting an assisted-living facility.

Without help, employees are likely to spend time away from work or use work hours to research solutions to parents' care needs. The resulting lost productivity and increased absenteeism cost businesses as much as $29 billion a year, according to a MetLife study.

Without the company's elder-care assistance program, some of Yagoda's clients would have to quit, forgo a promotion, or transfer to another location in order to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities.

While not all caregivers are lucky enough to work for a company that offers elder-care assistance, all can now use a new tool to identify government benefits such as prescription-drug assistance, in-home services, property-tax relief and nutrition programs.

Launched this summer, the free BenefitsCheckUp service www.benefitscheckup.org is provided by the National Council on the Aging and includes a database of about 1,000 federal and state programs available to help older people.

While most programs are targeted to low-income seniors, some benefits are based strictly on age.