The stresses placed on family members when a parent suffers from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia is considerable, but when there is only one child to shoulder the burden, it can be devastating financially and emotionally. Only a few states offer support for workers who must care for family members.
When Marcy Sherman-Lewis needed to take extensive time off to care for her parents, both suffering from Alzheimer's disease, her supervisors were sympathetic, but only to a point. Her parents lived an hour away and gradually, according to the New York Times in "Caregivers Sometimes Must Sacrifice Their Careers," Sherman-Lewis used up all of her vacation days, sick days and personal days.
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.
The burden of care falls particularly hard on an only child. For Marcy Sherman-Lewis, with no siblings and no other family members to turn to, there were no options and the economic toll was considerable.
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