A Guide to Balancing Eldercare and Career
by Liz O’Donnell
When my parents were both in their 80s and requiring more and more support from me, I found balancing their needs with my career incredibly challenging. For starters, I thought I was the only one at work who was struggling with eldercare. When my coworkers went out on parental leave to have babies, we would throw office showers and share our best parenting tips. When they returned, we would coo over the baby pictures they proudly displayed on their desks and offer assistance in juggling childcare and career. But when my parents stopped driving and got sick, and I started taking time off to care for them, no one at the office had a party for me. No one offered advice. No one even knew.
Despite the lack of support, it turns out I wasn’t alone. There are an estimated 50 million people who have worked and provided care to an aging family member.1 These family caregivers, especially the women, often find they need to switch to less demanding jobs, take time off, or quit work in order to make time for their caregiving duties. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day, and a predicted shortage of paid caregivers in the next few years, the number of working daughters and sons is only expected to increase. And while the average caregiver to an aging parent is a woman in her late 40s, more and more Millennials are assuming eldercare responsibilities.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to better balance the competing demands of caring for your parents, working, and raising kids.
Accept your role as caregiver
One of the many things that makes managing eldercare more difficult than childcare is the fact that most of us don’t plan for the role. We often plan in advance to have children, thinking through the best time to start a family, how it might impact our career, and what resources we’ll need for support. Even those who don’t plan still generally have nine months to prepare. That’s not the case with eldercare. Often it starts with helping your parents with a few small tasks like grocery shopping or paying bills, and before you know it, you’ve taken on driving your parents to their doctor appointments and assisting with medication management and dressing and bathing. Or, your parents have a medical emergency, and overnight you become their caregiver. No matter how it starts, take a moment to acknowledge the fact that you have taken on a new and significant role.
Once you acknowledge and accept that you have a new role, you can start to identify what supports you need to put in place and what accommodations, if any, you need to make at work. Like the working parent who outlines a plan for incorporating a child into their life, think about what you need to make your career and care responsibilities more compatible. Do you require a few extra hours in the morning to get your parent set up for the day or to wait for a paid caregiver to arrive for a shift? Do you need to leave early to accompany your parent to doctor appointments? Do you need the flexibility to work remotely so that you can be at their bedside at a hospital or hospice home? You’re more likely to succeed if you’re clear about what you need to make work and life fit.
Likewise, think about what won’t be helpful. This will help you prepare to turn down suggestions that won’t work for you. For example, your boss may suggest that you stop traveling or give up a high-profile assignment. But you might find work to be a respite from caregiving or a welcome challenge to take your mind off your parent’s health issues, so while well intended, such an offer may have an adverse effect on your well-being. Also, know that as your parent’s needs change as they age or an illness progresses, or perhaps if they transition from home to a senior living facility, that your support needs will change too.
Do your homework
Understand what options are available to you as you seek to integrate your caregiving role into your professional role. Start with your company handbook or human resources intranet. Does your company offer any caregiving benefits such as access to a geriatric care manager, or backup eldercare for when your parent cannot be left alone? What policies exist for flexible work arrangements like working from home, staggered start times, or job sharing? Does your company have a paid-time-off policy? Is the company eligible for the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows employees to take up to 12 workweeks of leave in one year to care for a family member with a serious health condition? Are you eligible?
Once you’ve done some research, look beyond the policies to assess your company culture. Note what benefits, if any, the management team does or doesn’t use. Notice what flexible options your peers are taking advantage of. It’s helpful to understand the unwritten rules of your company as well as the official policies as you navigate how best to access the flexibility you may need.
Once you’ve researched your company’s policies and approach to caregiving and flexibility, determine how much of your personal situation you want to share. Ideally, you’ll feel comfortable talking to your manager or human resources department about your caregiving situation. If they’re aware, they can help you access support. You never want to surprise your boss. By disclosing some details of your situation, you give your company time to prepare for when you may have to take time off or leave work with no notice. That said, it’s not always prudent to share information about your personal life at work. That’s where your observations on company culture come in. Think about how secure you feel in your job and your company’s tolerance for work-life issues. In some cases, sharing the fact that you have challenges outside the office may cause managers to view you as a weak link or to withhold assignments and promotions.
If you do decide to disclose that you have eldercare responsibilities, or you want to access particular benefits, stick to the basic facts. You don’t have to share details about a diagnosis or overshare your personal concerns about paying your parents’ medical bills or dealing with dysfunctional sibling dynamics. Make some recommendations on how best to cover your work in the event you cannot do it and be prepared to ask for any support you think you may need.
Build trust every day
Trust is your most important currency at work. It’s what you trade for the flexibility you need. To earn and keep that trust, consider how you’re showing up at work and actively manage your reputation. For example, if you know that you’ll have to take personal calls from work, tell your colleagues up front that you may need to step out of the office for a few minutes or that you’ll be checking your phone during a meeting. If you’re working remotely, make sure you have what you need to be productive, like a reliable Wi-Fi connection and access to your files. Continue to respond in a timely manner to emails, Slack messages, and voice mail. Finally, make it easy for coworkers to fill in for you if needed. Keep your assignments organized. Copy team members on important correspondence and file documents where others can access them, such as on the company server or Google Drive.
If you do have to leave early or take unplanned time off, make it easy for colleagues to cover for you. Share status updates on your assignments including where to find important information and how to reach project stakeholders. It’s less important to share the details of your caregiving emergency and more important to share details on what needs to be done, how to do it, and when you think you’ll be available to check in and answer any questions that may arise.
Look for ways to build a support network. As a society, we have come a long way in a short time in supporting working parents. We need to do the same for workers with aging parents. Consider starting a support group at work for adult children. Talk to your human resource department and ask if the company will sponsor a special interest group to help caregivers manage their career and care challenges. If the company isn’t willing, ask other caregivers to meet for lunch to brainstorm ideas on managing care needs and trade resources. The sooner we make eldercare visible at work, the sooner we will start to create better solutions for making the two compatible.
Focus on the long game
Most important, keep in mind that your role as a working child is only one phase of your career. Spend some time thinking about what you want your life to look like post-caregiving. What are your long-term goals for your career, financial security, family, and personal legacy as a daughter or son? As a working caregiver, you are constantly choosing between career and care: travel for work or stay home; pursue a promotion or work part-time, go to the hospital or attend the meeting? Let your longterm goals guide you as you make those decisions. When you’re clear about what’s most important to you, you can make smart decisions about how to navigate this challenging time in your career and life.
Adapted from “Balancing Work and Eldercare Through the Coronavirus Crisis,” March 31, 2020 (H05ICW).