Will eldercare be as common as childcare?

A number of major employers are offering “eldercare” – help with looking after older relatives. Will this soon be as common as providing help with childcare?

Just before Christmas 2012 Deborah Gemmell realised she was a carer.

Deborah’s 82-year-old mother, Pauline Cuthbert – “feisty, independent – she has a better social life than I do” – fell and broke her nose. The accident shook Pauline’s confidence. She wouldn’t leave her house in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in case she fell again.

Deborah, who lived a two-hour drive away, would have to take time off work to accompany Pauline to hospital appointments. She had a back-up plan – an eldercare package offered by her employer, giving up to 20 days assistance a year from a care worker who could take her mother to her clinic.

“I immediately felt so much better. I was so upset. It was the worry and the stress that was taken away,” says Deborah.

She may have been fortunate to have had access to this support from her company, Bright Horizons, but a number of firms have realised that they don’t get the best out of their people if they are worried about family pressures outside work.

Those who have put in place eldercare services for employees include Sainsbury’s, British Gas, and NHS England. About 70 organisations have joined the group Employers for Carers, which points out that about one in seven employees will have caring responsibilities outside work.

They may be a minority of employers, but they are following a similar rationale to the now mainstream view that companies need to offer childcare assistance to encourage new mothers back into the workplace and retain talent, rather than go to the trouble and expense of recruiting and training new people.

Life expectancy has grown enormously in the last half-century. On average those in developed countries like the UK can expect to live to 80, more than 10 years longer than during the 1960s.

In addition, people are working much later in life, making them more likely to have to combine working with caring for a relative.

As a result, Helena Herklots, chief executive of the charity Carers UK, believes eldercare could one day become as commonplace as childcare in the workplace, despite big cuts to social care budgets.

“It is a near-universal experience for all of us,” she says. “At some point in our lives most of us will either become carers or need care. It is beginning to be a challenge as strong as the childcare issue maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It’s that important for business, but not all businesses have woken up to that.”

Even people who are involved in the business sometimes don’t think of themselves as carers, or realise that eldercare is a service they could use themselves. Deborah herself works for a company that started out offering employee childcare services to multinational companies, but then also branched out into arranging eldercare services.

But there’s also a stigma attached to caring which inhibits people from discussing it in the workplace, perhaps because they worry that their boss will think they are not completely committed to their work.

“It’s very personal. It can be very emotional when you are looking after a loved one and you can see that they are in a declining state of health,” says Angela Gardner, a senior manager of diversity and inclusion at KPMG, the professional services company.

“Some people will try to soldier on, leave it at the door, come into work, and do a day’s work. That’s not necessarily the best approach to take.”

For many, looking after an older relative is only one part of their caring responsibilities.

Research by the polling company YouGov found there are 2.4 million “sandwich carers” in the UK, caught between caring for children and elderly parents at the same time as working. Another survey for Carers UK found that 42% of this sandwich generation were either struggling to cope or at breaking point.

Deborah learned this for herself. While Pauline was recuperating, Deborah also found herself looking after her 25-year-old daughter who was recovering from an operation. “I suddenly realised what the sandwich generation was all about at that point,” she says.

Ben Black, a founder of My Family Care, which offers its clients eldercare services, says companies need to do three things – identify who in their workforce are carers, offer them empathy and understanding, and then practical support.

“Social services are in a shambles,” he says, “There’s help for the very poorest but the middle classes are stuck in the middle without much help. The system is a maze, and people need lots of help to navigate it.”

Companies designing benefits packages find that eldercare can be more inclusive than childcare. Not all employees have children. But all of them had parents, many of whom will need help from time to time.

For Deborah, the investment has paid off.

“What my colleagues and my manager appreciated was that I was so happy when I’d had this help, and I feel a lot more confident now about being a distance-carer, which I now realise I am. It’s taken away so much worry, so I can focus more on the job.”