Alzheimer’s Disease and the Only Child

Sandwich generationCould Replacing a Family Caregiver’s Monthly Salary Cut Healthcare Costs for the Elderly?

A recent New York Times article, "Caregivers Sometimes Must Sacrifice Their Careers," reports that Marcy Sherman-Lewis' supervisors empathized, but she was missing workdays. Both her parents, who lived an hour away, had Alzheimer's disease. Once Marcy, an only child, had used up all of her vacation, sick days and personal days, her bosses balked at giving her additional time away from the job.

She resigned in 2007 so that she and her husband, a retired engineer, could move from Overland Park, Kansas, to her parents' city, St. Joseph, Missouri. She found a new job. It worked out perfectly at first, but Alzheimer's goes only one way. Marcy got calls at the office about her parents mixing up their medications…her mother, reaching over the stove, set her arm on fire. She wasn't badly burned, but it put the fear of God in Marcy. She left her job in 2009, possibly for good. Although her parents have since died, her 77-year-old husband received an Alzheimer's diagnosis a year ago and requires her full-time attention.

Marcy doesn't regret her decisions, but wonders if she'll ever work again. Paid family leave might have extended her career. About 34 million Americans cared for someone over age 50 in the past year, and the majority were employed. It's a difficult juggling act, as elder care takes life-altering turns without warning. It could be a crippling fall or a massive stroke. An older person's need for help typically increases. With increased life spans, some workers will care for their parents longer and more intensively than they did their own children.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act helps some working caregivers. It protects their jobs, but the law has significant limitations, as it covers only about 60% of the working population (exempting employers with fewer than 50 employees) and only those caring for a spouse, parent or child. Not in-laws or grandparents. And it's unpaid. There are, however, some states that provide temporary disability insurance for workers and started adding benefits for those who need time off for family caregiving. California was first in 2004, followed by New Jersey in 2009 and Rhode Island last year.

The financial consequences, the loss of current and future income, can be especially troubling for women. They earn less on average and are more likely to become caregivers. Paid leave isn't going to solve every caregiver's issues, but it may work best when workers are helping parents recover from surgeries, taxiing them to appointments, or helping with their shopping and cooking. Marcy Sherman-Lewis had no such options when it came to her parents. No leave. No siblings. "It was me or no one," she said.

Reference: New York Times (December 4, 2015) "Caregivers Sometimes Must Sacrifice Their Careers"


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