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More families cope with elder care

(ran SP, TP, CI editions)

Rosy Lopez was meeting with a vendor in her office three years ago when the call came from her mother. Again.

"She was hysterical, screaming that there was a lady in her room stealing things and she was going to call 911. I knew there was nobody there," Lopez said. "The sales rep sat for half an hour while I calmed my mother down on the phone."

It was then that Lopez knew she had to take action. Lopez, an administrative manager at McDermott Will & Emery, called her firm's employee assistance hot line and began to sort through a maze of elder care options. Since then, Lopez has adjusted every aspect of her life, from expanding her house to include a room for her mom to hiring a full-time caregiver to coaching her children on how to behave toward Grandma.

Many workers have learned that elders' health crises often strike family members with little warning and lots of disruption. If you are a working adult, chances are that you, too, will assume elder care responsibility at some point. The numbers say as much. At least 16 percent of the work force already provides elder care. Life spans are lengthening, and the ratio of elderly to middle-aged people is expected to rise 50 percent by 2030, according to the Census Bureau. The numbers show that family members provide 80 percent of the care for the aged.

Businesses have begun to realize the difficulty employees face when juggling care for an elderly parent or relative and carrying on their own lives. Though elder care benefits are still not as mainstream as those for child care, some businesses are offering referral services, subsidized elder care, emergency elder care, and on-site elder care centers. The Society of Human Resource Management expects to see a steady increase in elder care benefits in the next five years, particularly through employee-assistance programs and flex-time arrangements.

How to care for an elder may be even more relevant and problematic in communities where the culture embraces parents living with their adult children. One friend of mine found family members disapproved when she turned to an assisted living facility after she found that caring for her mother at home, even with a sitter, was too difficult.

The dilemma has forced some workers to retire early, seek jobs with flexible hours and even take short leaves.

Lopez hired a daytime caregiver for her mother, an option that may elude others. She says she has learned how to fit her mother's doctor's appointments into her work schedule or make up the time she needs off.

"They are very accommodating here, but if someone is at a new job or owns a small business, I don't know how they do it," Lopez said.

Stan Douglas, a former banker, has managed to care for his elderly mother, who has Huntington's disease, while running an Internet travel business from his home. To do this, Douglas built a duplex whose alternate side is occupied by his mother and her caregiver. He and his wife share their side with his mother-in-law, who is retired and self-sufficient.

"It's easier with a home/office scenario because I'm readily available if my mother needs me, but it's harder as well when I'm trying to take care of business without interruptions," said Douglas, 50. Douglas has lived with the arrangement for six years.

Douglas makes all decisions on his mother's finances, care and medical treatment _ calling it "a time-consuming, emotional challenge."

Paul George says he was working as a professor at Miami Dade College and a historian to the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, and giving historical tours of Miami-Dade County when his father passed away and he realized he needed help with his mother, who had developed dementia.

"My mother had asked me not to put her in a rest home," George said. Because his siblings lived outside of Florida, George chose to buy his mother a condo near his home and hire a live-in caregiver. Even though he followed through on her wishes and had the legal paperwork in order, he was unprepared for the emotional toll.

Most working adults say there's a lot of guilt and second-guessing associated with caring for an elderly parent or relative, maintaining a personal life, and doing what's financially feasible.

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