Susan Johnson needed help. A secretary at the Travelers Corp. in Hartford, Conn., she had recently suffered a series of health crises in her family.

First her divorced father, a 76-year-old part-time bank employe in Troy, N.Y., slipped and fractured his ribs. His health deteriorated further; he soon lost his sight and was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease. Then her 76-year-old mother, who lives an hour away, was identified as having senile dementia.

To assist her parents, Johnson might have had to spend hours of work time on the phone, checking to make sure they were okay, tracking down services and doctors, and making arrangements for their care. But since Travelers is one of the first companies in the country to set up a program to help employes care for their elderly parents, some of that burden was removed.

*"The professionals here not only helped me find local agencies to aid my parents but also took some of the pressure off me and listened, so I could go back to work and be productive," says Johnson, 50, calling the eldercare program an "answer to prayer."

What she especially appreciated was Travelers' attitude that the welfare of care givers like herself mattered. "It's important not to have to shove this whole situation down and repress it," she says. "If you do that, you're not much good to anybody. In addition to insurance, you need assurance."

Management hasn't always been so sympathetic.

"There are many decades of corporate culture that say 'Don't bring your personal problems into the workplace,' " says Dana Friedman, a senior associate with the Conference Board, a business-sponsored research group in New York. "That was fine as long as men were working and women were at home. But as soon as the sex roles blurred, so did the difference between work and family life, and now it's not so easy to keep those worlds apart."

As a result, a few companies are beginning to provide assistance to employes who are caring for an elderly person -- especially parents, spouses and other relatives. In addition to grants to local service agencies, more direct eldercare benefits can include counseling, adult day-care centers, noon-hour support groups, information lines, flexible work hours and leave without pay.

"When it comes to crisis situations -- operations, catastrophic illnesses, deaths -- companies are fabulous, and always have been," says Friedman. "Now they're beginning to address the day-to-day management of these issues."

While the eldercare movement is still in its infancy, Friedman and others believe it may snowball into becoming the employe benefit of the 1990s. And as the baby boomers and their parents get older, eldercare will become increasingly advantageous to the employer as well.

"Women who need help caring for their young children are being vocal about that, but they also have responsibility for aging parents and grandparents," says Elaine Wilk Cohen of Pathfinders/Eldercare, a Scarsdale, N.Y., care-management counseling service. "They need to come in late, spend time on the telephone, take time off to take a parent to a doctor's appointment, get emergency calls. Business is being hurt by this, and that's why it's going to deal with the problem."

Travelers began its eldercare program after surveying 739 home-office employes. According to the study, which is considered the first comprehensive examination of the problem at a major corporation:

Twenty percent of employes age 30 or older -- many of whom were simultaneously raising young children -- were caring for someone age 55 or older.

The employes had been providing that care for an average of 5 1/2 years. Average care per week was 10.2 hours; for women care givers, 16.1 hours. Eight percent of this group was spending 35 or more hours per week at the task.

Only one in five said they never felt care giving interfered with other needs or family responsibilities. Four out of five wanted more information about relevant community resources.

The Travelers' findings are confirmed by a just-completed government study, billed as the first documented look at how care givers have made changes in their lives in order to keep relatives from being institutionalized. Conducted by the National Center for Health Services Research, the study found that 2.2 million care givers are responsible for 1.2 million moderately to severely impaired people -- those who need help with such daily activities as eating or bathing. Eighty percent of these care givers provided help seven days a week, for an average of four hours a day.

While only a third of the 2.2 million are employed, it is a figure that Robyn Stone, one of the study's coauthors, expects to increase as more women are drawn into the labor force. And the employed in the study, like in the Travelers survey, had job conflicts: 20 percent had to work fewer hours, 29 percent rearranged their schedules, and 19 percent took time off without pay.

"Work doesn't really deprive people from providing care -- it just doubles up on their responsibilities," says Stone. "Given the increased longevity patterns, a lot more divorce, people getting married later, choosing not to have children or having them later, plus more women in the labor force, there will soon be even more of a drain on care givers than there is now."

bat10 Among the ways Travelers decided it could help its employes with eldercare problems was by providing more information and counseling services, permitting flexible hours and facilitating deductions of up to $6,000 a year before taxes to use in care for an elderly dependent.

One of the rejected ideas was an adult day-care center. "We didn't see that it was the answer -- peoples' situations vary too much," says Jim Davis, Travelers vice president for personnel. "Getting the elderly person out of the home may not be the answer, or it may not be possible."

Davis makes clear that Travelers offers these benefits for the same reason any company would: to make it easy for employes to work. "If people have less stress, they'll spend less time going down blind alleys and be more productive," he says. When it comes to the elderly, he suggests, "business is going to focus on the employe, as opposed to directly helping the recipient."

A similar program to Travelers is under way at the University of Bridgeport's Center for the Study of Aging. Expected to get widespread attention as a model because it is funded by the government's Administration on Aging, the program works with three Connecticut corporations -- Pitney Bowes, People's Bank and Remington Products.

The center's initial survey found approximately 30 percent of the employes over age 40 at these firms had primary responsibility for an older relative. Based on that research, it has begun to develop three types of services that can be implemented as part of employe-benefits packages:

On-site support and information groups, in which a trained leader meets with employes for eight lunch-hour sessions.

A telephone consultation service, where employes can call the center staff with questions concerning older relatives and receive advice and referral.

Respite care, in which the employe and company split the cost of a trained person who comes into the home for a weekend or afternoon to help out.

"These three were picked because they were relatively inexpensive, they don't duplicate existing services, and they can feed people into the existing support network," says center director Mark Edinburgh.

"It may well be," he adds, "that the corporate responsibility is to set up access and entry into the service network so that time and energy aren't wasted by employes."

Some think corporate responsibility should go a little further.

"I can't see where flexibility in the workplace and a greater access to cafeteria-style benefits where employes get a choice of benefits would be beyond the reach of employers," says Alice Quinlan, public policy director of the Older Women's League, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"Employers could clearly expand any existing childcare benefits to be what they should have been all along -- dependent care benefits. If you have to have someone come in and care for your aging parent, it should qualify for reimbursement, just as a child's baby sitter does."

The U.S. House of Representatives is also getting into the act. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1986, which originally was concerned only with children or personal illness, was amended to allow for children of dependent parents with serious medical conditions to take up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave over a two-year period.

"Employers increasingly understand that providing leave to care for a seriously ill parent or child helps build a loyal, experienced and productive work force," says Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), a sponsor of the bill. " . . . Many employers understand this and provide leave in such situations. Unfortunately, there are many more that do not."

The bill, which now has more than 125 cosponsors, is pending floor action and could come up for a vote in August or September.

Because eldercare directly affects top management, its supporters are hopeful businesses will take action. "They can relate to this problem because they have aging parents themselves," says Cohen of Pathfinders/Eldercare, which is doing seminars and workshops on the issue with Ciba-Geigy, Mobil and Consolidated Edison. "It's either in his own family or in his secretary's, who also is more likely to be an older person."

The Conference Board's Friedman thinks there are three stages to the issue: awareness, acceptance and accommodation.

"For a large segment of corporate America, we still need awareness," she says. "There are some forward-thinking companies who have been aware of the problems and say they're accepting some responsibility for it. But so few."

She believes it's the shift in values that's hard -- realizing that women are in the work force to stay, that men are getting more involved in caring for their families, that family issues are being brought into the workplace.

"Managers are not taught to think that work behavior is affected by nonwork factors, but that's changing," Friedman says. "They're learning that if you understand all the employes' needs as a human being, you'll probably get more out of them."