Just over a year ago, after much soul-searching, Robert W. Crispin turned down a plum job as one of the top three executives of a prestigious company on the West Coast. He decided instead to stay in Hartford, within easy visiting distance of his ailing 90-year-old father-in-law in northwest Pennsylvania.
"We tried to figure out ways to deal with this," Mr. Crispin said. "We talked about opportunities to travel back to the East. But traveling transcontinental every couple of weeks is not easy, and I was very concerned about how my wife would agonize, and how much she would have to be away from me and my 14-year-old daughter."
The company even offered to move Mr. Crispin's in-laws, but he thought that would be too disruptive.
Just when corporations were getting used to the "trailing spouse" -- the wife or husband whose career puts obstacles in the way of business moves -- a new problem is cropping up. The graying of America is starting to create "trailing parents," who pose even bigger relocation hurdles.
Nobody knows the exact extent of the problem. But already an estimated 10 to 12 percent of the work force is responsible for caring for an aging relative, said Andrew Scharlach, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. By 2020, Mr. Scharlach projects, one in three people will have to provide care for an elderly parent. The Conference Board, a business research group, estimates even more people will be affected -- as many as 40 percent before 2000.
With many more elderly parents to care for, more employees will face tough choices in deciding whether to move. "This is a new factor in the job equation," said Durant A. Hunter, president of Pendleton James & Associates, a search firm.
It is also a new wrinkle for the American economy, which has always depended on a high degree of mobility.
Like that first laugh line or gray hair, the problem is barely attracting notice -- yet. But as baby boomers start turning 50 in 1996, their parents, who are expected to live longer than any previous generation, will ascend into their 70's and beyond. Soon, more and more Americans will find themselves in the same position as Mr. Crispin, who is 48.
Companies are only beginning to deal with the implications of trailing parents. A few, like Apple Computer Inc., have sometimes agreed to foot the bill for moving elderly relatives rather than settle for a second choice in important personnel appointments. But many, fearing high costs, do not want to acknowledge the problem.
Besides, no matter who pays, moving elderly people to unfamiliar surroundings often causes problems. Whether they live with a child, in a nursing home, or on their own, they risk social isolation and increased dependence on their children.
"This was not on our radar screen a few years ago," said Cris Collie, executive vice president of the Employee Relocation Council, a business-supported organization in Washington. "But the growth in concern is astronomical."
Meanwhile, corporations are ever-eager for a mobile work force. In a study released in May, 80.9 percent of the 147 companies surveyed by Atlas Van Lines said they expected to transfer more employees in 1995 than in 1994. Sixty-two percent said they expected to move more people in 1999 than in 1994.
And those numbers do not include the outside talent that companies increasingly seek to fill crucial slots. But with a larger number of people looking after elderly relatives, corporations are likely to see some of their choices stymied -- even at top levels.
"I have had two or three cases in a row where it was definitely a factor," said Mr. Hunter, the corporate headhunter.
Frederick W. Wackerle, a recruiter at McFeely Wackerle Shulman in Chicago, echoed the concern. In each recent search by his firm for a chief executive, "there's been one candidate who has needed to stay close to an elderly parent in their 80's or 90's."
Usually, recruiters said, such candidates temporarily drop out of the job-changing market, restrict how far they will move, or both. Mr. Crispin, for example, did move to a new job after his father-in-law died last spring. But the post -- as executive vice president and chief financial officer of the UNUM Corporation -- is in Portland, Me., still a relatively short flight from Pennsylvania, where his mother-in-law and his own parents, all in their 80's, live.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to stay in the running for a job. John F. Johnson, a recruiter at Lamalie Amrop International in Cleveland, said his firm recently considered candidates for a $500,000-a-year job. "One executive told us that he'd look at the opportunity, but might not pursue it because of elder-care responsibilities," Mr. Johnson recalled. "We decided not to pursue him."
Mr. Johnson said the issue currently affects "a very small minority of individuals in our work." But he added, "I don't always know if they will tell me about this."
Relocation specialists agreed that people often do not volunteer the information, lest they be left out of the running for promotions. Even so, in a survey of employees at eight large companies conducted by Rodgers & Associates, a research firm in Boston, 37 percent of those who identified themselves as providing care for an elderly relative said they were not interested in relocating. By comparison, 26 percent of all employees said they would not be interested in such jobs.
And in the 1995 Atlas Van Lines survey, "family ties" edged out "spousal employment" for the second consecutive year as the primary reason employees turned down a relocation. It was cited by 64 percent of respondents. Concern for elderly relatives was undoubtedly a large part of that, relocation experts said.
Recent Census Bureau statistics show that Americans over all are moving less frequently in the 1990's than they have in decades past, though they still relocate more often than people in Western Europe and Japan. In a one-year period ending in March 1994, 16.7 percent of the population changed residences, down from the 20 percent that was typical in the 1950's and '60's.
Many companies have not yet decided how to respond to the elder-care problem. "People are starting to voice it, but it has not become an outcry yet," said T. J. Chiles Jr., director of work force diversity at the International Business Machines Corporation. Like many companies, I.B.M. -- whose initials, it was often said, stood for "I've Been Moved" -- has no policy on moving elderly parents, unless they live with the employee. Then, they move with the household.
Sometimes, though, the rules are bending to circumstances. "We do not move multiple households," said Kathleen Curtis, relocation manager at Apple Computer. "But we don't grill employees either. If they say parents are living with them, we do it."
Other trend-setting companies are winking at the rules, too. "We will move the new hire or the transferee and their dependents living at home," said Burke Stinson, a spokesman for the AT&T Corporation. He said if he were a transferee with a parent in a nursing home, "I'd just make arrangements to move him or her into my home for a month before the move."
In the Atlas survey, only 3 percent of the companies said they would move an elderly person who would not share the employee's home at the new location. In reality, though, these decisions are often made on an individual basis.
"Most companies are at the point where if someone's supervisor says, 'I want this to happen for this person,' they make an exception and pay for it," said Steve Mumma of Atlas Van Lines.
But there are few hard-and-fast rules in this sensitive area. Before setting a policy, "we'd have to see that people who are critical to us in managing our business are unable to accept assignments because of this," said Mr. Chiles of I.B.M.
The trouble is, employers may not know how an employee's personal responsibilities affect his or her professional life. "Transferees are not requesting help because there are so many other things that they are asking for," said Donna J. Malinek, president of Forward Mobility, a relocation consulting firm in Bernardsville, N.J. "They either turn down the transfer or they cope with moving the elderly parent themselves."
That, in turn, can create family tensions, Ms. Malinek said. "The spouse tends to do all the legwork to reconnect the elderly parent with the community, and that's an awful lot of work," she said.
Help with those tasks -- already provided for employees who need to find schools for their children and job opportunities for their spouses -- may be as important to transferees with responsibilities for parental care as paying for the moving van.
When one man was transferred from Cupertino, Calif., to Modesto, Calif., last year, his ailing mother-in-law, a stroke victim in her mid-70's who was living in a convalescent home, moved with the family. The employer, a large consumer products company, paid for the move and also for Forward Mobility to identify appropriate nursing homes in Modesto. As part of its package, Forward Mobility also researched doctors, hospital contacts and home health aides.
But "this is not standard policy among corporations," said Bonnie E. Graziano, a manager at Forward Mobility. "It's usually done on a case-by-case basis." Companies that pay for help with child-care and other family issues are the most likely to approve it, she added.
There is no question that demand for such services will grow. "It's when people reach the 70's," said Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, "where problems start arising."
Photo: Robert W. Crispin turned down a job as one of the top threeexecutives at a West Coast company to stay close to his ailing father-in-law. (Wade Spees for The New York Times) (pg. 46)