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Work & Purpose

How Family Caregivers Make Career and Elder Care Work

The multitude of ways the employees handle all their responsibilities


With the number of working Americans caring for an aging parent growing, you might expect that companies would be increasing benefits to help the family caregivers manage these duties. But according to the 2018 Employee Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, benefits to help workers care for aging parents were cut or remained flat from 2017 to 2018. Little surprise, then, that many family caregivers are creating their own solutions to balance elder care and work .

In lieu of employer programs to assist them, the family caregivers are working reduced schedules, using personal time to assist their parents, sacrificing sleep, and in some cases, educating their employers about what they need.

From Working 5 Days a Week to 4

Take Denise Moorehead, 63, of Framingham, Mass. For years, Moorehead ran a marketing communications company. That, she says, gave her the flexibility to more easily care for her octogenarian parents who live 80 miles away and have a number of medical issues, including diabetes and vision problems. But the caregiving meant she was never able to give the business the time and energy it needed to grow. Her father, who also has kidney problems, was very sick at that time, so Moorehead was constantly going back and forth from her home to her parents.

“I had to get my bosses to understand I would never be in at 9 because that was when the certified nursing assistant showed up.”

Consequently, she sought and found a job at an educational nonprofit and got the employer to let her work four days a week. That lets her assist parents one day a week and weekends. “They knew my work and they knew I have certain skills and saw that as useful,” she says of the organization’s decision.

Still, Moorehead would like to find a way to work full-time with a full-time paycheck, while managing her caregiving responsibilities. “I do worry when will I retire,” says Moorehead. “Dad retired at 59. I’m not going to retire anytime soon.”

What Employers Tell Family Caregiver Employees

Not all employers are as understanding as Moorehead’s, though they may talk a good game.

As a partner in a national real estate firm whose compensation was largely based on commission, John Crossman, 47, of Orlando, Fla, didn’t feel he could take a leave when his father was suffering from cancer and kidney failure in 2004. “People would ask me, ‘Why don’t you just take time off?’ and I would say, ‘Because I can’t.’”

His managers would always say, ‘Take as much time as you need,” but, Crossman recalls,  those sentiments were often followed by “Make sure you’re in Chicago by Monday.”

Why Elder Care Is Different Than Child Care

Vivian Geary, a senior event planner for a major entertainment destination in Orlando, needed flexibility to care for her mom who lived with her from 2007 to 2017 and was hemiplegic on her left side. Geary educated her managers on the life of an elder caregiver, rather than set herself up for burnout.

“With my job, I had to switch my hours a little bit,” Geary says. “Typically, our job would be 9 to 5, but I had to get my bosses to understand I would never be in at 9 because that was when the CNA (certified nursing assistant) showed up.”

Rather than stay late, Geary let her managers know she’d work through lunch and still leave at 5. “At first I tried to get to work as close to 9 as possible, but then I said, ‘I’m just going to be there at 10.’ Nine a.m. was like a shift change in my house,” says Geary  “I couldn’t just walk out the door after the CNA showed up.”

Geary says her employer was very understanding, comparing her situation to working parents in the company. But Geary doesn’t think that’s exactly apt.

“The implication was my parent was my child, and the situation is completely different.” The difference, Geary says, is that many parents only need child care coverage before and after school, while an adult child living with an aging parent needs coverage around the clock. “But in management’s eye, it’s considered to be the same struggle ,” she says.

The distinction made a difference at night, when Geary needed to be onsite to run an event.

“I did have to tell my management in a review once that I wanted (to work) more daytime events, because night time events cost me money.” Her regular home care coverage ended at 9 p.m. and she had to hire additional help when working late. “By using the child care model, they thought that by night time I’d be taken care of.  It was just kind of an aha for them,” says Geary.

An Unofficial Conversation

In contrast to Geary, Elizabeth Miller, 47, who lives in Atlanta, says she was upfront with her boss about her caregiving situation in 2014 but, “I didn’t have an official conversation about it.“ Instead, she explained her parents’ health challenges and said she’d get her work done while handing caregiving as needed.

Miller works for a Fortune 1000 retail company and had to travel back and forth from Georgia to Florida to care for her parents. Her mother, who has health issues including COPD and congenital heart disease, was hospitalized that spring. Then her father went to the hospital with an infection. He died that summer.

“A lot of people didn’t even know,” she says. “We had a VPN (virtual private network) where I could log on (remotely) and I never left without my laptop and my notebooks. I just never knew if I was going to be somewhere.”

Her strategy worked for her long-term. Miller was recently promoted.

Liz O'Donnell
By Liz O'Donnell
Liz O'Donnell is the founder of Working Daughter, a community for women balancing elder care, career and more, and author of the forthcoming book: Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning A Living.

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