How (and why) some employers are stepping up support for working caregivers

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As baby boomers age, more and more workers find themselves either caring for a loved one or requiring care themselves. The sandwich generation in particular is increasingly strapped with the stresses of simultaneously caregiving for their aging parents and their children.

In fact, the caregiving population in the U.S. is approaching 66 million adults, according to a 2009 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. These individuals, who make up 15% of the workforce, need employer support.

A new cloud-based technology platform promises to do just that by reducing the costs and complexity of caregiving for families and employers. Boston startup torchlight, known for supporting caregivers with children of special needs, recently launched a new digital service that will aid adults caring for their elder loved ones.

“I don’t think that employers are aware of the immense costs from presenteeism and absenteeism” that comes with caregiving, explains James Weil, a member of torchlight’s advisory board and former vice president at MetLife, Long Term Care and Mature Market Group.

“There’s a hidden cost,” he adds.

Employers lose $38 billion in lost productivity, according to a 2015 report by Ceridian LifeWorks.

Not only is there a huge cost to the employer, the employee is often forced to take time off work, miss out on promotions and often leaves the workforce entirely to care for a loved one. The same study estimates that for a woman who leaves it’s a $324,000 loss due to lost salary, Social Security and pension cuts, and this is a conservative estimate.

The biggest challenge facing caregivers and their employers is that they don’t see themselves as caregivers and often suffer in isolation, never realizing the resources available to help them.

“You have more older people living longer with more chronic conditions; you have more and more children called in to become caregivers who aren’t prepared for it. And those two things lead to the third component of the perfect storm, which is that more employers are losing productivity in the workplace because employees are distracted and stressed. It really is the employer’s self-interest to make their employees aware of elder care, to show their support for them,” says Weil.

While 43% of employers have an EAP in place, many caregivers are afraid to use the resource, fearing they may be the first laid off if they reach out to the employer’s EAP.

“That leads to the brilliance of what torchlight is doing,” Weil says. “They’re offering the next generation of eldercare support that can be offered directly through their employer or through their EAP and employees can use it in the privacy of their own home when they need it.”

Torchlight elder provides an online navigation platform that can be accessed 24 hours a day from any web-enabled device. Employees can develop clear action plans for caring for their family member by utilizing roadmaps built into the caregiving platform.

Weil describes torchlight’s online decision support system as "moving from a landline to an iPhone.” It’s a dramatic leap where the employee can obtain decision support online and a win-win for the employee and employer, he says.

“Employers can play an incredible role in moving the needle in helping caregivers who are trying to balance this complexity,” says Adam Goldberg, CEO and founder of torchlight.

Caregiving amounts to a second job, so these workers need all the help they can get.

“These informal caregivers are untrained, unpaid, uninformed and sometimes the health care and education systems are stacked against them and they don’t have the time and energy to balance everything with work and figure out everything on their own,” explains Goldberg.

Torchlight created a playbook to simplify all major decisions and provide the roadmap forward.

Goldberg knows firsthand how difficult caregiving can be, having been a caregiver for his aunt, Pauline, early in life. He and his torchlight colleagues drew on their own experiences to create a platform that can help others like him.

“The magic of the platform is that those of us who are building it have these experiences to draw on."

“The magic of the platform is that those of us who are building it have these experiences to draw on. We’ve worked the system and we want people to benefit from it,” says Carolyn A. Romano, the head of content at torchlight.

Romano took care of her aging grandmother and used the platform’s built in journal to “keep a chronology of events right at my fingertips,” she says.

The platform also has a file cabinet feature for caregivers to scan, upload and tag important documents so they’re available when they are needed.

Most importantly, the torchlight platform aims to help individuals clear through the overwhelming confusion of where to start. Caregivers fill out an intake checklist that overviews the loved one’s housing, medical and general needs. For example, can they bathe themselves? Can they move around independently without the risk of injury? Can they feed themselves? Take care of the housework or money management?

After filling out this questionnaire, the platform narrows down what resources the user needs from 80 different topic areas such as, keeping up with vaccinations, managing multiple medical needs, and knowing how to appeal a hospital discharge. A dementia behavioral log and cognitive impairment home safety checklist can help for those taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. There’s even guidance on giving up a beloved pet if that’s needed.

Caregivers who use the platform receive an action plan for what they need to accomplish. The platform takes them down the appropriate workflow path and how to take action along the way, from veteran status in healthcare benefits to Medicare and Medicaid.

If users have a more specific question, they can search the knowledge base or ask questions anonymously.

For those who want more high-touch access, torchlight offers consultations from experts and provides every employer’s program with a set of webinars from industry thought leaders. Starting with “survival kit,” this webinar gives users the 101 for child or elder care — including what their rights are and how they can navigate the platform. These are available on demand from any location the user likes.

Users can share information with other family members to help coordinate care and keep them informed.

“It’s a network group on a caregiving team [where people] may be in different locations and it’s difficult to coordinate. It adds an accountability layer,” says Goldberg.

Employers and workers have always focused on the financial side of planning for retirement and it’s time they include planning for care as well, says Weil. This includes planning for health and housing issues as a caregiver and one who may need the care.

“For most people it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen to their parents, it’s a matter of when. Chronic conditions are correlated with aging and people are living much longer now, so it’s natural for things to start going bump in the night,” Weil says.

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Weil advocates that employees purchase long term care insurance to help with costs and that they take time to plan for caregiving, as they would retirement.

“This includes financial planning, making sure that powers of attorney and living wills are set up, and that there are plans in place for what would happen if,” he says.

He suggests that employers and line managers also keep communication of programs like Torchlight up throughout the year. Because employees won’t pay any attention to it until they need it. It’s a just-in-time benefit, he says.

“Training business unit managers so they know where to send people within the benefits portfolio while dealing with sensitivity to the issue because you can’t get too personal" is critical, according to Goldberg.

“Caring is everyone’s business,” he says. “It just makes sense to do this. And if we can be the torchbearers for the employers, then it makes their life much easier.”

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