As parents age, boomer sons also become caregivers

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) When dentist Bard Levey and his wife moved to a suburb of New York, they looked for a big house. It wasn't just because they had a toddler he was also bringing his parents to live with them.

His father's mind is fading due to Alzheimer's disease. His mother has had a series of illnesses and is physically frail. They needed care, and 38-year-old Levey knew it was his responsibility.

''The reward of being able to help your parents outweigh the negatives and the emotional toll,'' he said.

As the ravages of time are hitting the people that raised the baby boomer generation, their sons are increasingly shouldering the burden of caring for them.

That's not to say men are carrying most of the burden. According to a 1997 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP, 72 percent of U.S. caregivers are women. But more recent anecdotal evidence and less authoritative surveys point to a shift.

Lenise Dolen, a geriatric care manager who advised Levey, has noticed the change.

''It used to be that the men were the ones paying for it, and the women were doing the work, but that's not the case anymore,'' she said.

A survey this year of employees of Fortune 500 companies found that men were just as likely as women to say they cared for their parents.

However, the study had a low response rate, and the organizations behind the study the National Alliance for Caregiving, insurance company MetLife and Towson University said it was not representative of the country as a whole.

With more men providing care, more are also facing the difficulties of combining those responsibilities with work.

As a dentist with his own practice in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., Levey sets his own hours and has the time to take care of his parents. But even with what is perhaps an ideal caregiving setup, they occupy his mind.

''It's kind of like owning your own business, because even when you're not there, you're thinking about it all the time,'' Levey said. ''In that sense, it does take a toll.''

For others, putting in 22 hours of care a week (the average among baby boomer women in 1998 survey by the National Alliance of Caregivers) exacts a heavier price.

Cindy Wilson, a professor of family medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said caregivers often exhibit problems like headaches, lower back pain and fatigue, all typical of stress.

Male caregivers report fewer such problems, perhaps because they are less involved in the more personal aspects of care, like feeding, washing and dressing.

Instead, they are more likely than women to take care of the financial matters of their parents. That may spare them back pain, but it's not a free ride.

David M. Grant, president of public-relations firm LVM Group in New York, has had power of attorney for his 92-year-old mother for years, and takes care of all her checks and paperwork.

''It's not easy, because you have to get all these certifications and notarizations,'' the 58-year-old Grant said. In particular, getting Social Security to send her checks to him took him a lot of paperwork and follow-up.

In the poll of caregivers at Fortune 500 companies, both men and women reported they had missed work and had to modify their schedules because of caregiving, and two-thirds said caregiving had at least some negative effect on their careers.

The poll also revealed another gender difference: The men were less likely than women to tell their superiors and co-workers they are caregivers.

Dolen believes men typically have not been comfortable talking about family issues in the work place, and they may also be afraid that it could put hurt their chances for promotion.

That reluctance to identify themselves can be a problem not only for them, but for their employers.

Work interruptions due to caregiving cost U.S. companies between $11 billion and $29 billion a year, according to a 1997 estimate by Metlife, which sells long-term care insurance.

To mitigate those costs, many large employers have started providing help and advice to caregiving employees as an extension of employee assistance programs.

''The cost of doing nothing and not addressing this problem is much, much greater than the cost of doing something,'' said Dolen, who is also the president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers.

But many workers are unaware there is help to be had only a third in the Fortune 500 survey knew about their employers' programs, for instance. And if men aren't comfortable revealing themselves as caregivers, they are unlikely to seek help.

However, social norms have a way of changing to accommodate the needs of those born in the baby boom between 1946 and 1964.

''You're going to see more and more men being able to raise these issues in the workplace,'' Dolen predicted.

She and Wilson, the family medicine professor, gave the following tips for men and women trying to cope with caregiving and work:

Do some research. ''Many people have their stress levels appreciably reduced by having an understanding of the disease and the issues facing the parent,'' Dolen said. Also, books and the Internet can help a lot with problems like, for instance, picking incontinence supplies. Or consult a professional.

Don't go straight home get some exercise. ''It's good advice, but difficult to follow,'' Wilson said. However, without exercise, that fatigue is likely to get worse.

It helps to have network of supporting friends. Or go to a support group.

Be aware of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for family caregiving. The leave can be taken a few hours at a time, if necessary. The law applies to companies with 50 or more employees.

On the Web:

National Alliance for Caregiving: www.caregiving.org/

National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers: www.caremanager.org

National Family Caregivers Association: www.nfcacares.org/



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