Support is a way to keep workers who are family caregivers

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Anna Walters
Anna Walters

Taking care of human beings is our business, and the focus of our care shouldn't be solely on residents.

How does the senior living / long-term care industry, and your organization specifically, compare with others in taking care of employees? In the current climate, we are facing historic rates of turnover, decreasing revenues and increasing competition. There is competition for residents and competition for employees to take care of them.

In 2017, the AARP and ReAct (Respect A Caregiver's Time) joined forces to publish “Supporting Working Caregivers: Case Studies of Promising Practices.” What I found striking in this look at organizations taking care of their employees who are caregivers was that senior living / long-term care providers were not prevalent among those listed. Is it ironic that we, as professional providers of care, are not leading this change in human resource practices?

In our experience, those in the healthcare profession are the first to be called on within their own families when a health crisis occurs. The nurses and aides staffing our communities are the “nurses in the family” when someone needs help.

Multiple research studies illustrate the time-juggling among the sandwich generation, those caring for children and aging parents. Sixty-one percent of working caregivers admit to calling off or adjusting their work schedules to provide eldercare, and 13% quit their jobs to be caregivers, according to statistics cited in the 2017 AARP/ReAct publication.

Workers who are family caregivers want flexibility

That publication also noted that, as retention programs attempt to curb the high rates of turnover, Gundersen Health System recognized that nurses have a disproportionately higher rate of being family caregivers. Employees identified job flexibility as a high priority, and the system accomplished a 91% retention rate among nurses, partially attributable to a focus on “caring for the whole person.”

Job flexibility, the top priority of working caregivers, is a huge struggle for those staffing a senior living community or long-term care facility to satisfy. Some employers start with non-exempt staff members, offering telecommuting, split shifts and job-sharing where possible, whereas others find ways to meet the needs of employees with creative scheduling.

And meeting the need can pay off for organizations. A 2016 study from the AARP and ReAct, “Determining the Return on Investment: Supportive Policies for Employee Caregivers,” reported that every $1 invested in flexibility provided a return on investment of $1.70 to $4.34; telecommuting had an ROI of $2.46 to $4.45 versus $1 spent. Multiple organizations reported increased retention, engagement, job satisfaction, recruitment and productivity, while absenteeism and turnover decreased.

Supporting workers doesn't have to be expensive

So the results are in. Caregiver support programs can improve an organization's bottom line. But what about the cost?

Many organizations don't have the ability to pay for an expensive support program or the staff to run such a program. Senior living operators and long-term care providers, however, are experts at taking care of people. We have the expertise and, in many instances, the keen understanding to know that minor changes can have a big effect.

Creating a culture that normalizes eldercare is a low-cost step toward the caring atmosphere we all strive to achieve. If your workplace is an environment of acceptance, you will increase the likelihood that an employee will feel comfortable identifying himself or herself as a family caregiver. Training managers to support the front line and to know how to respond in a crisis will result in an employee feeling supported and grateful.

Our team at Weber Place is diligent at reinforcing the Senior Star culture of listening with compassion. In addition, Weber Place was able to offer flexibility through an expanded benefits program that includes eldercare as an acceptable use of paid time off, flexible spending accounts and employee assistance programs.

Employees often also need resources, information and referrals, as well as a safe place to discuss them and ask for assistance. We easily can share with them the same information about local community resources that we share with residents and their families. Other low-cost ideas to care for working caregivers include providing private space for a support group, offering webinars (often at no cost) and “lunch-and-learn” sessions.

When making hiring decisions, the managers at Weber Place pay attention to a person's character; we can teach skills, but we can't teach character. Kindness, caring, patience and compassion are qualities I need in our front-line staff. Those qualities that identify the kind of person Weber Place wants to hire are the same qualities that make them caregivers at home … and caregivers we want to support at work.

So are we in a position to support the family caregivers who work in our communities? Starting with some minor changes and increased awareness and education, we can be the kind, caring and successful leaders who provide as much support to our staff as we do for the older adults and families in our care.

Anna Walters is assistant executive director at Senior Star at Weber Place in Romeoville, IL. She is a registered nurse who provides hands-on care and spearheads several programs for residents and families, including caregiver support groups to help family members better understand the complexities of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. A founding partner of the Anne Byron Waud Patient and Family Resource Center on Healthy Aging at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, she has more than 25 years of experience in the field of geriatrics.

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