Home Health Dementia and caregiving: it is time for paid family leave

Dementia and caregiving: it is time for paid family leave

My father's warm laugh and sparkling eyes faded – and his care needed to grow – as dementia began to fall.

For his last years, my father lived in a care facility. The staff of the memory care treated him well. But he needed more than the staff. He needed my brothers and me to help him navigate his changing needs.

Sometimes all he needed was a kiss on the cheek and a chocolate bar. But other times he needed help that we could only manage during working hours. Things like assistance conferences, medical appointments and other official business.

Fortunately, we all had employers who gave us a period of paid leave when we had to help him for a few hours or days.

Millions of other workers in the United States are not so lucky. Many employers do not offer any paid family or paid leave or paid leave. This forces many workers to choose between caring for a seriously ill family member and financial security.

It is estimated that 5.7 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer's dementia, the most common form of dementia, and numbers are growing with the aging population. The Alzheimer's Association reports that 1 in 10 people aged 65 and over in the United States have Alzheimer's dementia.

More than 16 million people, mostly family members, provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer's or other dementias. According to data from the National Alliance for Caregiving in 2017, 6 out of 10 health care workers were hired in the past year, while they assisted their loved one.

This week (February 5) marked the 26th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). That law offers only unpaid leave. Guarantees job protection for up to three months of leave, but only applies to companies with 50 or more employees. About 40% of workers are not entitled to FMLA protection.

Thus, family and paid medical leave is left to the whim of employers. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, only 17% of the workforce has paid family leave benefits through employers. Workers with a higher income are much more likely to get paid family leave than less paid workers.

A federal law that will be reintroduced in the coming weeks – the FAMILY Act – would do much to address the inequalities of this country's caregiving. It would allow workers to take leave with partial pay for the birth or adoption of a child, for their own serious health conditions or for a family member, or for certain military purposes of care and leave.

Under the bill, workers could take up to 12 weeks of vacation. It would provide employees with two thirds of their salaries, up to a maximum, for that period. Employees, employers and self-employed workers would make small contributions on wages to finance the program. Contributions would be less than $ 2 per week for a typical worker.

This law would make paid holidays available to all eligible workers, not just new parents, and this is important. About 75 percent of people taking family or medical leave each year do so for reasons other than maternity or paternity. They take it to take care of family members with serious illnesses, injuries or disabilities or for their medical needs.

This federal law is based on models of successful state programs for paid family leave. Six States – California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington and Massachusetts – and Washington, D.C., now have such programs.

Other states are considering paid leave expenses. One of them is Minnesota, the home state of my family. Recently, despite the freezing of the polar vortexes, supporters came out en masse for a committee hearing on a state leave bill.

Research on the states that have paved the way to these policies shows good results: they are financially solid and self-sufficient and benefit both employers and workers.

Voters want a law like this. In a 2018 poll of registered voters, 84% responded that they would support a national law on family leave and medical leave such as FAMILY.

When my father passed away at the end of last year, I needed free time from work to take care of him and say goodbye. In his last days and hours, during what would normally be working days, I could be by his side without worrying about my work or financial security.

Congress and state legislators should pass sensitive laws that allow all workers to take care of their loved ones when they need it most.

Janet Walsh is vice director of women's rights at Human Rights Watch and author of "Failing her families: lack of paid leave and support for the working family in the United States". He lives in twin cities.

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