Assistance to Employee Caregivers Good for Everyone’s Bottom Line

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 11, 2017

Days ago, AARP and the Respect a Caregiver’s Time Coalition (ReACT) released a report detailing innovative practices and policies of 14 organizations to support their employees with caregiver responsibilities. With the graying of America, supporting caregiver employees should be considered “a potentially new weapon” to attract or retain talented employees, say the researchers, by flexible work arrangements and paid leave policies. And there will be a need for this support.

It is estimated that of the 40 million unpaid family caregivers in the U.S., 60 percent are employed. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP Public Policy Institute, nearly 25 percent of all family caregivers are millennials, and 50 percent are under the age of 50. This means that the growing number of family caregivers in the workforce is an issue that all employers will face. The NAC/AARP research also revealed that 61 percent of working caregivers must make workplace accommodations including modifying hours, taking a leave of absence, choosing early retirement or turning down a promotion.

Report Cites Best Practices to Support Employee Caregivers

The 14 case studies in the new report, “Supporting Working Caregivers: Case Studies of Promising Practices,” include well-known organizations from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and both large and small employers. They represent a broad set of industries, including financial services, health care, higher education, home care, management consulting, media, and technology.

There is “no one size fit all” solution to meeting the needs of employee caregivers, say the researchers. But, even with the diversity of the 14 participating organizations “there is clear evidence of promising practices” identified through these interviews, they note.

Researchers gleaned best practices from 14 nonprofits and for profits (from very large employers with over 200,000 workers to ones with less than 200 workers), detailing in the report released on June 8, 2017, how these organizations assist their caregiver employees. These companies provide a broad array of information resources and referrals, flexible work arrangements, paid time off for caregiving, emergency backup care, and, in some cases, high-touch counseling and care management advice.

“Family caregivers juggle their loved one’s needs with their own personal and professional goals every day. AARP hopes this report will encourage more employers understand caregiving and support their employees’ success,” said Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer in a statement. AARP sponsored the 49-page report.

According to researchers, interviews with business and human resources executives from the profiled organizations indicated that time and flexibility are what matter most to employees when it comes to balancing work and caregiving. Close to half of the employers interviewed provide paid time off for caregiving as well as emergency backup care and flexible work arrangements.

All offer employee caregivers a combination of information resources, referral services and advice by phone. Most provide resources online, typically through an employee assistance program (EAP) or an intranet portal. More than half offer phone consultations or 24/7 expert hotlines. Several interviewees stressed the value of providing on-site, independent eldercare consultants, noting that employees appreciate both the convenience and the respect for their privacy.

“ReACT represents a cross-sector employer effort to raise awareness of and spur action to meet the challenges millions face every day while taking care of an older loved one,” said Drew Holzapfel, convener of ReACT, in a statement. “It’s exciting to see how leading organizations are showcasing the value of employee caregivers’ dual roles at home and in the office.”

Organizations Give Thumbs Up to Assisting Employee Caregivers

Interviewees at the participating organizations were not shy in explaining the importance of offering caregiver assistance to employees.

Michelle Stone, Fannie Mae’s Work-Life Benefits Senior Program Manager, says, “We have been asked, ‘How can you afford to do this?’ Our response is, ‘How can we afford not to?’ The program helps our company and our employees save time and money, and the return on investment is substantial.”

Michelle Martin, Vice President, Human Resources Specialty Services, CBS Corporation, states, “Our hope is to fill the gaps in support along the continuum of care so that employees not only have what they need to care, but also the peace of mind to do so without worrying about their job.”

“At Allianz Life, we like to say, ‘we’ve been keeping promises to our employees and customers since our founding.’ Nothing matters more than our employees and we work every day to provide them with benefits that allow for work-life balance and peace of mind,” says Suzanne Dowd Zeller, Chief Human Resources Officer.

Adds Audrey Adelson, manager of work-life, Emory University, “Our program is based on a continuum of care model, designed to support not only entrenched caregivers, but also those who anticipate becoming a caregiver and those whose caregiving responsibilities have ended and are beginning to move beyond caregiving.”

AARP Rhode Island Champions Caregiving Temporary Disability Insurance

Most employers recognize that some of their best workers are not at their best when they are caregivers in crisis for feeling the onset of burnout,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen noted. “One of the reasons is that most employers and their human resources managers respond to the needs of caregivers is because they are not far removed from caregiving if not caregivers themselves. They know that caregiving responsibilities sometimes must take precedence over work. And they understand that what is good for the caregiver is also good for their business.

“In Rhode Island, caregiving temporary disability insurance – legislation championed by AARP – gives caregivers paid leave to attend to caregiving tasks or as respite when a break from work benefits all concerned. Employers should assess their policies and give thought to the importance of supporting their caregiving employees’ success. This is true of businesses large and small and non-profits as well. These bosses can start by simply asking themselves what their expectations would be if they were an employee.”

Rhode Island CEOs might consider obtaining a copy of this report, passing the document to Human Resources for review and ultimate implement of eldercare policies. Stressed employee caregivers will appreciate any assistance they can get to help them in their caregiving responsibilities. But, this makes good business sense, too. Assisting employee caregivers will increase employee productivity, improving the company’s bottom line.

To read the full report, go to:
http://respectcaregivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/AARP-ReAct-MASTER-web.pdf

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New Study Looks at Better Ways to Instruct Caregivers

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 2, 2016

A new report released by United Hospital Fund and AARP Public Policy Institute, using feedback directly gathered from caregivers in focus groups, provides valuable insight as to how video instruction and training materials can be improved to help caregivers provide medication and wound care management.

AARP Public Policy Institute contracted with United Hospital Fund (UHF) to organize the discussion groups, which took place in March through December of 2015 and were conducted in English, Spanish, and Chinese. A new report, , released on September 29, 2016, summarizes key themes from the discussions and suggests a list of “do’s and don’ts” for video instruction.

Gathering Advice from Caregivers

In a series of six discussion groups with diverse family caregivers — 20 women and 13 men of varying ages and cultures (Spanish and Chinese) — in New York, participants reported feeling unprepared for the complex medical and nursing tasks they were expected to perform at home for their family member. The participants reported that educational videos lack instructional information and also failed to address their emotional caregiving issues. Stories about poor care coordination came up during the discussions, too.

“These discussion groups gave family caregivers a chance to describe their frustration with the lack of preparation for tasks like wound care and administering medication through a central catheter. But participants also demonstrated how resourceful they were in finding solutions on their own,” said Carol Levine, director of UHF’s Families and Health Care Project and a co-author of the report.

According to Levine, this initiative to study caregiver perspectives on educational videos and materials is an outgrowth of a 2012 report, Home Alone: Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care, released by UHF and the AARP Public Policy Institute. The findings of this on-line national survey of a representative sample of caregivers noted that 46 percent of family caregivers across the nation were performing complicated medical and nursing tasks such as managing medications, providing wound care, and operating equipment for a family member with multiple chronic conditions. These caregivers felt they were not being adequately prepared by the health care system to perform these tasks and they told researchers that they were often stressed, depressed, and worried about making a mistake. Most of these caregivers had no help at home.

The new caregiving report is an important resource for AARP’s broader national initiative known as the Home Alone AllianceSM which seeks to bring together diverse public and private partners to make sweeping cultural changes in addressing the needs of family caregivers. “The wealth of information we learned from these discussion groups has guided the development of our first series of videos for family caregivers on medication management, and will inform future instructional videos,” said Susan C. Reinhard, RN, PhD, Senior Vice President of AARP Public Policy Institute and co-author of the report. Specific segments of the first series of videos include Guide to Giving Injections; Beyond Pills: Eye Drops, Patches, and Suppositories; and Overcoming Challenges: Medication and Dementia. The videos are on the AARP Public Policy Institute’s website and United Hospital Fund’s Next Step in Care website. Additional video series will focus on topics including wound care, preventing pressure ulcers, and mobility.

In preparation for the discussion group (lasting up to 2 hours and held on different days and locations) ), UHF staff reviewed literature on video instruction and adult learning theory for patients and caregivers and selected several currently available videos on education management and wound care to show to caregivers to stimulate discussion and cull feedback on content and presentation style. Felise Milan, MD, an adult learning theory expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was a consultant to the project.

A New Way of Teaching

For UHF’s Carol Levine, one of the biggest insights of this study was the resourcefulness shown by caregivers in “finding information [about managing medication and wound care] that they had not been provided, creating their own solutions when necessary.” “These are strengths that are seldom recognized,” she says.

“We found that caregivers were eager to learn how to manage medications and do wound care more comfortably for the patient and less stressful for themselves. Providers often use the same techniques they would use to train nursing students or other trainees, and are not aware how the emotional attachment of caregiver to patient affects the tasks, and how adults need learning based on their own experiences, not textbook learning,” says Levine, stressing that providers need more time to work with caregivers to provide follow-up supervision.

Existing teaching videos used for providing information to caregivers were generally found not to incorporate adult learning theory, says Levine, noting that they were intended to teach students, not caregivers. “In watching the videos, the caregivers clearly stated that they wanted to see people like themselves learning to do the tasks, not just a provider demonstrating them. They also didn’t respond well to attempts at humor. For them, these tasks are serious business, and they want information, not entertainment,” she added.

Levine says that she believes that videos and interactive online instruction can be a powerful tool in helping caregivers learn and practice at home. “We encourage other organizations to consider developing videos in the area of their expertise, and we encourage all who communicate with caregivers to look at the list of “Dos and Don’ts” for advice about presenting information in ways that caregivers can best absorb it [detailed in her recently released report].

“However, we strongly believe that good clinical advice and supervision are essential. Videos are not “instead of” they are “along with” clinical care,” adds Levine.

CARE Act Gives More Info to Rhode Island Caregivers

“The report reflects the need to make family caregivers more confident that they have the knowledge and instructions to provide the best possible care of their loved ones,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “This is why implementation of the CARE (Caregiver Advise, Record, Enable) Act will be so important here in Rhode Island, as it addresses some of the anxiety that accompanies a patient’s hospital discharge.

“In most cases, hospitals do their best to prepare patients for discharge, but instruction has not always been focused on preparing a designated caregiver for medical tasks they may be required to perform. The CARE Act is designed to provide caregivers with the information and support they need. As the report indicates, an instructional video may not always answer all their questions. Like physicians, caregivers feel they should abide by the ‘first do no harm’ approach. And that’s hard sometimes if there is uncertainty that comes from a lack of instruction. Caregivers also are especially tentative about treating wounds and managing medications.

“This can lead to some unfortunate outcomes: Patients can suffer when mistakes are made; caregivers feel increased or debilitating stress; and hospitals readmission rates go up.
“In short, we need to listen to caregivers and all work together to support the work they do.”

For a copy of the caregiver report, go to http://www.uhfnyc.org/publications/881158.

Rhode Island General Assembly Seeks to Assist State’s Caregivers

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 14, 2015

With the graying of America’s population, the profile of the typical family caregiver has changed, says a new report released by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. The findings trouble aging advocates who warn that as care givers age they require more long term care support and community based care services.

Taking a Look at Today’s Caregiver

The report, “Caregiving in the United States 2015,” tells us that the “typical” family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who takes care of a relative, caregivers on the whole are becoming as diverse as America’s population.

According to the 81 page report, today’s family caregiver also provides unpaid care for at least 21 hours a week, and has been care giving for an average of 5-1/2 years.  These individuals expect to continue providing care to their loved ones for another 5 years. Nearly half of these higher-hour caregivers report high emotional stress (46 percent), too.

Men, often stereotyped as failing to take on caregiving responsibilities, currently represent a whopping 40 percent of family caregivers, also providing an average of 23 hours a week being a caregiver to their loved ones, adds the report.

The study’s data indicates that today nearly a quarter of the nation’s caregivers are millennials between the ages of 18 and 34 and they are equally likely to be male or female. On the other end of the spectrum, 75 and older caregivers are typically the sole support for their loved one, providing care without paid help or assistance from relatives and friends.

Meanwhile, caregivers, with an average household income of $45,700, tell the researchers that they are not only emotionally strained, but financial strained as well. These higher-hour older caregivers report difficulty in finding affordable care giving services, such as delivered meals, transportation, or in-home health services, in their community, for themselves and their loved ones.

The report also notes that “Caregivers of a close relative—like a spouse or a parent—who are likely to provide care for 21 hours or more, indicate that being noted as a family caregiver in the medical records of the care recipient would be helpful in managing their caregiving responsibilities.”

Finally, the study’s findings indicate that caregivers who live more than an hour away from their care recipient also report higher levels of financial strain (21 percent), perhaps because 4 out of 10 long-distance caregivers report the use of paid help (41 percent).

Report Calls for Supporting Caregiver Needs

As previous AARP research has shown, we’re facing a caregiving cliff,” said Dr. Susan Reinhard, senior vice president and director, AARP Public Policy Institute; and chief strategist, Center to Champion Nursing in America. “By mid-century, there will be only three family caregivers available for each person requiring care. That means, to avoid putting them at higher risk as they age, we need to provide support for existing caregivers who are underserved by the current long-term services and support system.”

We’re especially concerned that not enough is being done to support family caregivers in the public or private sector as they age,” says Gail Gibson Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving. “There’s a double-edged sword when we fail to support caregivers, because we put both the caregiver and the care recipient at risk,” she warns.

Hunt observes, “Rhode Island is a unique state in that it has the highest percentage of persons over age 85. The data in this report speaks to some of the challenges of a graying population, particularly the needs of caregivers who are 75 or older.”

“We know from the data that the ‘typical’ caregiver over 75 is caring for a spouse or close relative, and spends about 34 hours a week providing care. This can be extremely challenging for an older person who may be managing their own mobility and health issues, as they help a loved one with basic needs like bathing or everyday tasks like grocery shopping,” said Hunt.

Hunt says, “Rhode Island has an opportunity to continue supporting older people and their caregivers, who are also growing older and need care.”

Lawmakers Posed to Pass Caregiver Law

           In June 4th, the Senate passed SB 481 A, the CARE (Caregiver Advise, Record  and Enable) Act, to provide caregivers with timely information to allow them to provide post-discharge care.  The House Chamber passed its measure, HB 6150 Sub A on June 10th.  Both chambers must now approve the legislation from the opposite chamber.  If passed, they go to the Governor for approval.  This legislation will be invaluable to the state’s 148,000 caregivers who provided 142 million hours of care for loved ones.

“We are delighted that – upon the CARE Act becoming law – Rhode Island will join seven other states that  have enacted CARE Act legislation, with bills in three other states awaiting their respective Governor’s signatures,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell.

“Together, AARP worked with a strong coalition of stakeholders, as well as the House and Senate sponsors, Representative Eileen Naughton, and Senator Gayle Goldin, and the members of the House’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee and the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee,“ notes Connell.

“The passage of the CARE Act dovetails with the release of “Caregiving in the United States 2015,” which  presents a portrait of unpaid family caregivers today. It specifically addresses vulnerable groups of caregivers who face complex, high burden care situations. They tend to be older caregivers, who had no other option but to take on caregiving duties.” adds Connell.

Connell says, “It is sobering to conclude that in Rhode Island, with its above-average older population, we risk seeing more and more of old sick people caring for older sicker people. Clearly, that’s not a good thing and it needs addressing sooner than later.”

“One thing we noticed as the CARE Act made its way through the General Assembly was that a number of lawmakers shared their own personal caregiving stories. Some issues are harder to personally identify with than others, but when it comes to caregiving, it’s good to know we have this kind of attention. The report adds data and statistics that should help frame solutions,” says Connell.

 

Director Charles Fogarty, who oversees the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), sees the value of AARP’s report highlighting the “critical role” of caregivers taking care of their loved one.  “Family support is essential to allow seniors to stay in their own homes and live as independently as possible, he says, noting that federal funds allows DEA to administer respite and care giver support programs.

“As the baby boomer generation ages, DEA will continue to seek out resources that provide support to family members who care for their loved one,” says Fogarty.

The CARE Act can provide assistance to those tirelessly care for their aged or disabled loved ones.   Kudos for the Rhode Island General Assembly giving them the tools to do a better job.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

Report: Caregivers Face Demanding Personal and Professional Challenges

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 3, 2014

Providing care to cognitively and complex chronically impaired family members can be hazardous to the health and mental wellbeing of caregivers, says a jointly issued report by the United Hospital Fund and AARP Public Policy Institute. The researchers found that the demanding personal and professional challenges lead to high levels of self-reported challenges.

According to Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care to People with Cognitive and Behavioral Health Conditions, a publication in the “Insight on the Issues” released on Aug. 19, a majority of respondents (61 percent) reported constant stress from having their feeling stress “sometimes to always,” between their caregiving responsibilities and trying to meet other work or family obligations.

Adding to the challenge, people with cognitive and behavioral conditions (collectively termed in the 13 page report “challenging behaviors”) were generally sicker than other people requiring caregiving. These persons needing care often had chronic physical health diagnoses—including cardiac disease, stroke/hypertension, musculoskeletal problems (such as arthritis or osteoporosis), and diabetes—at higher rates than those without cognitive and behavioral conditions. Further illustrating the complexity, family caregivers of people with challenging behaviors often met with resistance from the person they were trying to help. Caregivers noted that “more cooperation from their family member” would make one key medical/nursing task—managing medications—easier.

The new findings are drawn from additional analysis of data based on a December 2011 national survey of 1,677 family caregivers, 22 percent of whom were caring for someone with one or more challenging behaviors. Earlier findings were published in the groundbreaking Public Policy Institute/United Hospital Fund report Home Alone: Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care and in earlier publications in the “Insight on the Issues” series, including Employed Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care and Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care to Their Spouses.

The report concludes, “All caregivers need training and support; caregivers who are responsible for people with challenging behaviors are among those most in need of assistance.”

Focused caregiver assessments were one of six recommendations outlined in the report. The others were better integration of behavioral and physical health programs, efforts to set up respite and adult day care programs for family caregivers, training of family caregivers to better understand and respond to challenging behaviors, better training of health care providers to work more effectively with family caregivers, and revisions to most support and training materials for family caregivers to reflect care management of the whole person, rather than just the specific condition.

“Caregiving is rarely uncomplicated, “said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Add these issues and the stress on the caregiver grows and can feel unceasing. We need to be mindful of the circumstances caregivers face. In the larger scheme, this points to the need a strong strategy that provides support to all caregivers.”

Susan Reinhard, AARP’s Senior Vice President for Public Policy, adds: “Take a hard look at this profile of today’s overstretched and overstressed caregiver for someone with cognitive or behavioral issues,”. “This is the face of caregiving’s future unless we improve long-term services and support for family caregivers,” she said, pointing to the expected surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and the projected drop by more than half in the ratio of potential caregivers to those likely to need care.

“Caring for a family member is hard enough when the family member is on the same page,” said co-author Carol Levine, Director of the Families and Health Care Project for United Hospital Fund. “But when that family member has a cognitive impairment, like Alzheimer’s, or a behavioral issue, such as depression—things that can interfere with daily life as well as decision-making—the burden on the caregiver is multiplied. And currently, our health care system often doesn’t provide the kind of support that can make a difference.”

Gearing Up

According to the Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2013 an estimated 5 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. Unless more effective ways are identified and implemented to prevent or treat this devastating cognitive disorder, the prevalence may well triple, skyrocketing to almost 16 million people.

Meanwhile, with 24,000 Rhode Islanders afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, every Rhode Islander is personally touched, either caring for a family member with the cognitive disorder or knowing someone who is a caregiver or patient. As indicated by the recently released AARP/United Hospital Fund report, many of these caregivers will doubly challenged by taking care of a loved one with chronic diseases who also have chronic and behavioral issues.

As reported in a previous commentary, both federal and state officials are gearing up to battle the nation’s impending Alzheimer’s epidemic.

In February 2012, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its draft National Plan, detailing goals to prevent or treat the devastating disease by 2025. Almost six months later, in May 2012, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a joint resolution (The same month that the final National Plan was released.), signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee, directing the state’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council to lead an effort to create a state-wide strategy to react to Rhode Island’s growing Alzheimer’s population. Almost one year later, a 122 page document, the Rhode Island State Plan for Alzheimer’s Disease Disorders, was released to address the growing incidence in the Ocean State.

Amazingly with the November election looming, candidates for Lt. Governor may be discussing a multitude of issues, but not the Ocean State’s impending Alzheimer’s epidemic and its impact on caregivers. Nor are the candidates talking about how they would continue the work of Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts in implementing the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s efforts to fully implement the State’s Alzheimer’s plan.

With the Lt. Governor being given the responsibility of overseeing the work of the Long-term Care Coordinating Council, maybe aging policy issues like the state’s impending Alzheimer’s disease epidemic and its impact on state resources and caregivers should be thoroughly debated. It’s a no brainer.

Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care to People with Cognitive and Behavioral Health Conditions was produced with support from the John A. Hartford Foundation. The report is available at https://www.uhfnyc.org/publications/881005.

To review the Rhode Island’s Alzheimer’s plan go to http://www.ltgov.state.ri.us/alz/State%20Plan%20for%20ADRD%202013.pdf.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

GAO Study Reports New Trends Push Older Women into Poverty

Published in Pawtucket Times, March 7, 2014

Following on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week on March 5, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a Congressional spotlight on the alarming increase of older Americans becoming impoverished.  The GAO policy analysts concluded that a growing number of the nation’s elderly, especially women and minorities, could fall into poverty due to lower incomes associated with declining marriage rates and the higher living expenses that individuals bear.

As many as 48 percent of older Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. “While many gains have been made over the years to reduce poverty, too many seniors still can’t afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and medicines,” said Aging Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Senate Aging Committee Looks at Income Security for Elders

Policy experts told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of seniors have been spared from abject poverty thanks to federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, and food stamps.  The testimony contrasted with the picture painted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this week, who produced a report that labeled the federal government’s five-decade long war on poverty a failure.

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Patricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, stressed the importance of federal anti-poverty programs.

“Between 1966 and 2011, the share of seniors living in poverty fell from more than 28 percent to about 9 percent, with the steepest drop occurring in the decade immediately following the start of the Medicare program,” said Neuman.  “The introduction of Medicare, coupled with Social Security, played a key role in lifting seniors out of poverty.”

Neuman’s remarks were echoed by Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law              Center, who credited food stamps, unemployment insurance and Meals on Wheels, along with Social Security, for dramatically reducing poverty among seniors.  The report was highly critical of many programs designed to help the poor and elderly saying they contribute to the “poverty trap.”  Ryan and other House lawmakers have long proposed capping federal spending and turning Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other programs for the poor into state block grants.

Older Women and Pension Benefits

GAO’s Barbara Bovbjerg also brought her views to the Senate Select Committee on Aging hearing. Bovbjerg, Managing Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, testified that the trends in marriage, work, and pension benefits have impacted the retirement incomes of older Americans.

Over the last five decades the composition of the American household has changed dramatically, stated Bovbjerg, noting that the proportion of unmarried individuals has increased steadily as couples have chosen to marry at ever-later ages and as divorce rates have risen.  “This is important because Social Security is not only available to workers but also to spouses and survivors.  The decline in marriage and the concomitant rise in single parenthood have been more pronounced among low-income, less educated individuals and some minorities,” she says.

As marriage and workforce patterns changed, so has the nation’s retirement system, adds Bovbjerg.  Since 1990, employers have increasingly turned away from traditional defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, she says, this ultimately shifting risk to individual employees and making it more likely they will receive lump sum benefits rather than annuities.

These trends have affected retirement incomes, especially for women and minorities, says Bovbjerg, that is fewer women today receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits than in the past; most qualify for benefits on their own work history. While this shift may be positive, especially for those women with higher incomes, unmarried elderly women with low levels of lifetime earnings are expected to get less from Social Security than any other demographic group.

According to Bovbjerg, these trends have also affected household savings Married households are more likely to have retirement savings, but the majority of single-headed households have none. Obviously, single parents in particular tend to have fewer resources available to save for retirement during their working years.  With Defined Contribution pension plans becoming the norm for most, and with significant numbers not having these benefits, older Americans may well have to rely increasingly on Social Security as their primary or perhaps only source of retirement income.

Inside the Ocean State

Although the GAO report findings acknowledge a gender-based wage gap that pushes older woman into poverty, Maureen Maigret, policy consultant for the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island and Coordinator of the Rhode Island Older Woman’s Policy Group, observes that this inequity has been around since the 1970s when she chaired a legislative commission studying pay equity. “Progress in closing the gender wage gap has stagnated since 2000 with the wage ratio hovering around 76.5 percent”, she says.

GAO’s recent findings on gender based differences in poverty rates are consistent with what Maigret found researching the issue for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island in 2010.  She found that some of the differences in the Ocean State can be attributed to the fact that older women are far less likely to be married than older men.  Almost three times as many older women are widowed when compared to men.

Maigret says that her research revealed that older women in Rhode Island are also less likely to live in family households and almost twice as likely as older men to live alone. Of those older women living alone or with non family members an estimated one out of five was living in poverty. For Rhode Island older women in non-family households living alone, estimated median income in 2009 was 85% that of male non-family householders living alone ($18,375 vs. $21,540).

Finally, Maigret’s report findings indicate that around 11.3 percent of older Rhode Island women were living below the federal poverty level as compared to 7.3 percent of older men in the state. Older women’s average Social Security benefit was almost 30 percent less than that of older men and their earnings were only 58 percent that of older men’s earnings.

             There is no getting around peoples’ fears about outliving their savings becoming a reality if they live long enough,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “One thing that the latest statistics reveals [including the GAO report] is the critical role Social Security plays when it comes to the ability of many seniors to meet monthly expenses. Social Security keeps about 38 percent of  Rhode Islanders age 65 and older out of poverty, according to a new study from the AARP Public Policy Institute.”

“Nationally, figures jump off the page,” Connell added. “Without Social Security benefits, 44.4 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line; all else being equal; with Social Security benefits, only 9.1 percent do, she says, noting that these benefits lift 15.3 million elderly Americans — including 9.0 million women — above the poverty line.”

“Just over 50 percent of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older rely on Social Security for at least half of their family income—and nearly 24 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their family income” states Connell.

             “Seniors trying to meet the increasing cost of utilities, prescription drugs and groceries would be desperate without monthly Social Security benefits they worked hard for and planned on. As buying power decreases, protecting Social Security becomes more important than ever. Older people know this; younger people should be aware of it and become more active in saving for retirement. Members of Congress need to remain aware of this as well,” adds Connell.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, agrees with Maigret that older women in Rhode Island are already at greater risk of poverty and economic security than older men.   “This [GAO] report highlights several trends that make it increasingly important to improve women’s earnings today so that they are economically secure in retirement.  Among the “policy to-do list” is shrinking the wage gap, eliminating occupational segregation, and raising the minimum wage. State and federal proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more women than men, demonstrating the importance of this debate to women’s economic security today and tomorrow.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox is proud that the General Assembly in the last two legislation sessions voted to raise minimum wage to its current level of $8 per hour.  That puts Rhode Island at the same level as neighboring Massachusetts, and we far surpass the federal minimum wage of $7.25, he said.  He says he will carefully consider legislation that has been introduced to once again boost the minimum wage.

“Bridging this gap is not only the right thing to do to ensure that women are on the same financial footing as men, but it also makes economic sense”, says Rep. David N. Cicilline.  At the federal level, the  Democratic Congressman has supported the ‘When Women Succeed, America Succeeds’ economic agenda that would address issues like the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, and access to quality and affordable child care. “Tackling these issues is a step toward helping women save and earn a secure retirement, but we also have to ensure individuals have a safety net so they can live with dignity in their retirement years,” says Cicilline.

With Republican Congressman Ryan in a GOP-controlled House, captured by the Tea Party, leading the charge to dismantle the federal government’s 50 year war on poverty, the casualties of this ideological skirmish if he succeeds will be America’s seniors.  Cutting the safety net that these programs created will make economic insecurity in your older years a very common occurrence.

.             Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.