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Obesity casts its shadow over elder care

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

With good reason, obesity has been on America's current news radar. Obesity is associated with a host of chronic diseases, most notably respiratory ailments, diabetes and high blood pressure, to name a few. There are other social issues on America's obesity horizon, including eldercare.

Public Education and Outreach

Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Susan Combs, and First Lady Michelle Obama are among high-profile names that have tackled public education about the dangers of obesity in America. Special Report, Counting Costs and Calories: Measuring the Cost of Obesity to Texas Employers, published in March 2007 by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, emphasizes that overweight children may be on-track to becoming overweight or obese adults. First Lady Michelle Obama has used the national stage to take the obesity public education campaign a step further: Michelle Obama Recruiting Chefs to Childhood Anti-Obesity Drive.

The public outreach campaign to educate America's youth about the dangers of obesity is strategic. The U.S. Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthcare professionals and others work tirelessly to raise public awareness of obesity as a public health issue. Fortunately for America's youth, there is time for the public education anti-obesity campaign to be successful.

For older adults who are obese. or borderline obese, eldercare's social clock is a ticking time bomb that is about to explode.

Aging Workforce Complications

With obesity a factor, an aging workforce presents many challenges for employers and employees alike.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), workers must be able to perform the essential job duties, with or without reasonable accommodation in employment. The ADA works as it should by keeping disabled individuals who are otherwise minimally qualified gainfully employed. ADA prohibits discrimination based on medical conditions, including as regarded by others, even when there is no medical record of such disability.

In some situations, ADA may be postponing the inevitable decision for those who are chronically ill to seek long-term assistive care. Many caregivers recognize when a family member's obesity-related health complications start to wreak havoc in family life, including their elder's life. Some obese elders may be holding onto paid employment for dear life, yet barely able to function otherwise without the help of an unpaid family caregiver.

Coping With Eldercare Obesity

Just as prisons, jails, and sometimes even a few hospitals are ill-prepared to care for an aging population of obese individuals with health complications, employers and family members find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some businesses have championed wellness programs in the workplace in an effort to help stem the tide of obesity issues in the workplace. Other companies tread carefully trying to avoid unfairly targeting obese workers in a manner that might be perceived as discriminatory.

Although some family caregivers recognize when an obese elder is in need of assistive care, many do not know how or where to begin in addressing their elder's long-term health, economic and social needs. Unpaid family caregivers to obese elders may need just as much if not more high-profile support and outreach than our youth.

Spotlight on Long-Term Care

Mine is not a statement of discrimination against individuals who may be disabled. I have championed ADA in the workplace for many years as a paid professional. I am proud of the ADA, its intent, and its sustained contributions to greater equalities for disabled individuals in workplaces across America. I am realistic when it comes to the devastating effects and social costs of chronic illnesses, even in absence of obesity's complications.

I have no clue how long-term care will rise to meet the challenge of obesity in America's aging and chronically ill population. All I know is that time has run out.