No One Should Have to Choose Between Caregiving and Work

Years ago, I regularly saw a neurologist who was treating me for chronic headaches. On one particular appointment, my doctor deviated from his usual laconic manner and asked me a few questions about my daily life. I explained that like many 40-somethings, I had a busy schedule. I worked full-time, had three kids and a husband who traveled. And by the way, my father had dementia and was going to stay with me during my mom’s recuperation from hip surgery.

“Hmmm,” the doctor muttered disapprovingly. “That’s too much.”

“Well that’s my life.” I replied defensively. “No different from lots of other women out there.”

“It may be.” the doctor responded. “But your body is telling you this is more than you can reasonably handle.” Annoyed, I initially pegged him as a guy who doesn’t get it. But in time, his message sunk in.

Like many caregivers, I was in the workforce – while sandwiched between the needs of my kids and aging parents. Along with 65.7 million Americans, I was part of a large contingent of people who provide 80% of long-term care in this country. Most of us don’t even identify ourselves as caregivers; just good daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers trying to do our best, yet constantly feeling like we are falling short of doing an adequate job of anything.

The stressors of being a sandwich-generation caregiver can take their toll physically, emotionally, and financially. On an individual scale, providing care for a senior family member can cost families upwards of $5,000 year.

Add to the mix your own children (mine were teenagers at the time needing my attention, but acting like they didn’t) and there’s a significant price to bear — for the caregivers, of course, but also their employers.

On average, caregivers miss 6.6 work days a year. The lost productivity adds up to a big cost to companies — to the tune of $17 to $33 billion annually. And since getting rid of children or parents is not an option, exiting the workplace is often an overwhelmed caregiver’s last resort. While the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) allows employed caregivers to take up to three-month leave from their jobs, most people don’t get paid during that time. And for those who walk off the job entirely due to caregiving responsibilities, total lost wages are estimated to be around $324,000 for women (including any Social Security they would have earned) and only slightly less for men.

But what if your job could ease the burden? Some companies are making it easier for caregivers to stay at work. Once afraid to speak up, caregiving employees are now giving voice to the realities of what they are up against: When your cell phone rings and you get that unexpected call, you can’t really hide the fact that Mom’s home health aide didn’t show up. You are going to have to blow off that mandatory management meeting to take her to the doctor instead.

Companies support these workers first and foremost by providing flexibility. A surprising number of caregivers have told me stories of being unable to leave work early or come in late to help care for mom or dad, even though they had a plan to make up the time. Not only do employers run the risk of caregiver workplace discrimination lawsuits, but word spreads fast and competition for talent is fierce. A 2012 National Study of Employers by the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) supports this notion: “Organizations that can offer more flexibility around reduced time, caregiving leaves and flex careers will have a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining employees as the aging workforce and dual focus on personal and professional lives among younger employees become increasingly important drivers in the labor market.” Being known as a flexible supportive work culture is not just good management, it makes good business sense.

But employees often need more than just flexibility — they need help. According to a recent study by ReAct (stands for “Respect a Caregiver’s Time”) and the National Alliance for Caregiving, best practices in workplace eldercare include access to web-based information, resource and referral programs, discounted backup home care, and paid time off. Companies often start by surveying employees to determine areas of strongest need. One organization offered seminars on caregiving topics such as, “Should Dad Still be Driving?” and “Caring for a Loved One with Dementia.” When the seminars were over-subscribed, it was clear there were employees out there in the throes of caregiving. The organization subsequently moved forward with a resource and referral program as well as on-site support groups.

Employees who work at companies that offer eldercare benefits are more apt to reach out for help and, as a result, are more likely to stay on the job. Take Nancy for instance; a 48-year-old single mother who works full-time as an administrative assistant at a university. Nancy’s 85-year-old mother lived alone and was beginning to show signs of dementia.  When Nancy learned her organization offered an eldercare benefit called “Senior Care Planning” (part of’s Workplace Solutions program), she was relieved. Through this benefit, Nancy was connected to a master’s-level social worker who helped her come up with a plan.  Since the university also had a back-up care benefit, the social worker found a home care agency that could provide Nancy’s mom help with basic transportation and errands ­— tasks that Nancy would have done herself otherwise.

Ultimately, the social worker identified an assisting living community that would meet mom’s needs over the long haul. Nancy’s response: “This certainly made a lot of this easier. You almost need a degree in this sort of thing to be doing it! This is a wonderful blessing.”  And for many folks who are trying to figure it all out on their own, this type of expert assistance can be a lifesaver. If you spend all your time as a caregiver stressed out and figuring out logistics, you may miss out on the good stuff – and that includes being engaged in your job while spending precious time with your family.

My own three children are grown now. My home is quieter — my life less hectic. Since my dad died, I am more acutely aware of how fleeting life in the caregiving sandwich can be. Although there were some calamitous moments – I brought my dad to work one day when his caregiver didn’t show up — I don’t regret the path I chose. And I know that the time spent caring for my father and children, despite all the stress and uncertainty, had moments of joy and sorrow, with a large sprinkling of gratitude.

But as I talk with working caregivers across the country, and despite the progress some companies are making, I still see similarities with my own experience as a working mother of three children and adult daughter of aging parents: the secrecy, frantic calls to find last-minute care, and the frustration and fear that grew as I tried to do it all without letting my employer see me sweat — or more likely, cry. As caregivers, we can’t do it alone. Backup care programs, resource and referral services, and expert guidance can provide real solutions, but they can only be effective if the work environment is caregiver-friendly.  Ultimately, we are all in this together. At some point, most of us will either be caregivers — or need them.