How Alzheimer's Will Change Your Workplace

With workers taking care of aging spouses and parents, firms are scrambling to help lighten the load.

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If employers want to see the future of the workforce, they need look no further than Pat Zajdel. A fifty-something telecommunications account manager at George Washington University, Zajdel noticed a few years ago that her husband had begun acting strangely. As his condition quickly deteriorated, two things became clear: he was exhibiting signs of dementia, and Pat's working life was going to suffer because of it.

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She describes his time in a rehabilitation facility as a period of regular interruption. "It was back and forth to there, and I would get calls that there was a situation, and I'd have to leave work right away."

Zajdel's difficulties are far from unique. A recent survey showed that 15 percent of American workers either are or have been caregivers for people with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia, and nearly half of those people say they were able to keep working while caring for their loved ones.

And with baby boomers now in their fifties and early sixties, the phenomenon is likely to grow. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 5 million seniors in the U.S. have Alzheimer's, a figure that is expected to balloon to 6.7 million by 2025. That sets the stage for a shift in America's workplaces, forcing employers to find new ways to accommodate employees who need to care for loved ones.

Boomers are often called a "sandwich generation," caring for both children and aging parents. And as the oldest boomers age, spouses add to the pressures.

"There's three sides to the sandwich. You have your kids, you have your parents, and you also have your spouse," says Linda Barrington, managing director of the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University's school of Industrial and Labor Relations.

[READ: Is It Time to Find Elder Care for Your Aging Parent?]

Having such tightly sandwiched employees could be a major drag on businesses, as the affected workers will be those who have been around for decades and therefore have deep experience and institutional memory, says Barrington. If they feel the pressure to quit, it could mean a major blow to the employers that depend on their skills.

It's not just a question of keeping employees at the office; workers whose minds are at work and not at home with their ailing relatives are more productive workers. Zajdel has hired an in-home care provider to stay with her husband during the day, but she says that even the few hours each morning when her husband is home alone leave her on edge, and she acknowledges that the worry can eat into her productivity.

"Because I leave for work by seven in the morning, and his care service starts at 10, I have a certain amount of anxiety until 10, when they get there," she says.

Having an in-home provider helped Pat stay at work—both physically and mentally—and companies are catching on that this benefit.

One major corporation says that providing elder care assistance is a matter of attracting and keeping the best workers.

"We look at this as part of our total rewards package to our people," says Mary Stringfield, national director of accounting firm Ernst & Young's rewards and benefits program. "We look at it as a recruiting and retention factor as well, because we know that the people who are able to somehow try to maintain some semblance of order in their personal lives, family lives, [and] work lives are much more loyal employees to our firm."

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Stringfield says she's used Ernst & Young's elder care program, which offers referrals to care providers, discounted rates, and access to an emergency backup care provider. The goal is to help workers to continue their work uninterrupted, says Stringfield. The company also offers subsidized backup care to employees working "beyond typical business hours."

The nation's shifting demographics are clearly pushing companies into offering more options for their workers, says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.