An increasing number of working-age adults – particularly women – are about to face the need to care for their elderly parents. Are employers prepared?
It’s a familiar scenario. An employee announces the happy news that a baby is on the way. A meeting with HR is organised to set the right processes in motion. It’s all relatively straightforward with accepted norms, both culturally and institutionally – and has been for decades. That’s great news for workers’ rights, gender equity and female participation in the workplace.
Now consider this alternative scenario. An employee, usually older (and therefore often more senior) has an elderly parent whose care needs are increasing. The employee (who is statistically more likely to be female, and who may also have dependent children at home) is now tasked with either taking on those care duties themselves or navigating the complex aged care system (and sometimes both).
This latter situation isn’t new, and there are mechanisms in place such as personal and carer’s leave to support employees going through it – but as Australia’s population ages, the prevalence of this scenario is predicted to increase substantially. Just as pertinently, the royal commission into aged care seems like proof that the severity of the issue (and not just the prevalence) will increase in the near future. So the question becomes, are our current approaches and policies enough?
Eldercare: a gender equity issue
Australians are having fewer children and living longer than ever before, and our population is ageing as a result. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from 1996 to 2016 the number of Australians aged 85 and over increased by 141.2 per cent, compared with a total population growth of just 32.4 per cent over the same period. And the proportion of elderly Australians is predicted to continue to increase substantially in the coming decades.
“Like many western developed countries, Australia has an ageing population. Given this, and gender equity concerns, there is a need for workplace policies to improve the capacity of carers to combine employment with their caring responsibilities,” says Anne Bardoel, professor of Human Resource Management at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.
“Much of the previous focus by employers has been on parents with young children, less is understood about those employees who provide unpaid care and support for the elderly, adult family members and friends with a disability or long-term health condition,” she says.
According to Bardoel, several studies of employee turnover have found women are more likely to quit for family or personal reasons (including unpaid care) than men.
“Despite some changes to gender norms around care, we know that women often take more responsibility for care than men. So implementing flexible workplace arrangements which enable men and women to combine work and care will underpin the ability of employers to achieve gender equity goals,” she says.
More than just leave
Jill Adams, director of people and capability at Charles Darwin University, experienced this scenario first-hand when her father’s health suddenly declined.
“We were astounded at how complex the aged care sector is. Trying to navigate it all while Dad was in hospital and just wanting to go home, and Mum was upset and not able to care for him – it was overwhelming,” says Adams.
“Especially for my brother who had teenagers doing their HSC and starting uni at the time, and for me trying to hold down a busy senior management job that required frequent travel.”
For Adams, who has had a long career in senior HR roles, providing real support and information to employees caring for elderly parents is just as important as flexible working arrangements.
“Yes, people require time off and many companies are great at being flexible enough to provide this, but I know from experience that when you are trying to look for a good nursing home, to understand and organise ACAT (aged care) assessments, to understand the financial implications of it all… it can be a full-time role just trying to investigate that,” she says.
“Companies need to realise that it’s distracting and exhausting for their people to be under all this pressure outside work,” says Adams. “It’s not just, ‘Oh we found a nursing home for Dad or Mum, it’s all sorted.’ There are a lot of decisions, and emotions – and conflict within families. Any support by way of referrals to specialist support services that can help your people navigate this time is critical.”
In Adams’ case, this referral came from a friend who connected her with a new Australian startup that works with clients – usually the adult children of elderly parents – to offer end-to-end case management, covering everything from financial advice to home care packages, decluttering services and more.
“In my opinion, this type of service is critical right now,” says Adams. “HR can offer services like these to employees, bundled up with other wellness initiatives to help support them through an emotionally difficult and complex period of their lives.”
Gemma Chilton works as a communications advisor for New Way To Stay.