According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16% of people in the U.S. are providing unpaid eldercare. AARP reports that 60% of these caregivers also work at a paying job. Caregivers spend an average of 3.4 hours each day caring for their loved one, on top of the hours they put in at work. They assist loved ones who live at home, at a distance, or in a senior living community. They help with grooming, prepare meals, provide transportation, and help manage their loved one’s healthcare and medical appointments.
Even before the pandemic, caregiving was more challenging in the 21st century. Today’s very oldest seniors are of the generation that had lots of children—the baby boom. But the boomers had fewer children, so now there are fewer caregivers to go around. Women were traditionally expected to provide most of the care—they were home anyway, right? No longer.
Complicating the picture, many members of the Millennial generation delayed childbearing, so they are more likely to find themselves in what’s called the “sandwich generation,” caring for elderly parents and minor children at the same time. Juggling those two roles along with full-time employment can be a stressful task!
Here are three important things working caregivers should do:
Protect your career.
Working caregivers often cut back on their hours, forego opportunities for advancement and promotion, and pass up on travel and training. A survey conducted by Genworth Financial, Inc., found that 11% of working caregivers lost their jobs, and another 10% had to change careers.
Constant distraction is the worst challenge, report some caregivers. “When I’m at work, I’m worrying about how Dad is doing at home, and when I’m home helping Dad with his medications and personal care, I am worrying about work … will I be late? What will my supervisor say? I feel stretched so thin!”
Fortunately, more employers today recognize that supporting working caregivers raises employee satisfaction and retention, cuts down on absenteeism, and also lessens “presenteeism”—when workday disruptions distract an employee and lessen productivity. A well-publicized study from Harvard Business School showed that for every dollar employers invest in caregiver support, they reap a return of up to $4.45. And with today’s labor shortage, understanding and support for caregivers could be an important recruitment and retention tool.
So be open with your employer about your situation. It’s better that your boss knows what’s behind any caregiver-related tardiness or absences. You might feel hesitant to “bring personal problems to work,” but remember that your company is as eager as you are to lessen the impact of caregiving on your productivity. Talk to your supervisor or human resources department about your current situation. Ask if your company has an employee assistance resource and referral program that offers family caregiver information and support. Find out the company’s policy on family leave, flextime, telecommuting and job sharing.
It’s also good to know that laws are in the works to protect the rights of working caregivers. AARP and the Center for Worklife Law at University of California Hastings College of the Law report that more state and local laws now address Family Responsibilities Discrimination (FRD), defined as bias against employees because of their family caregiving responsibilities.
Protect your financial well-being.
A study from the MetLife Mature Market Institute showed that working caregivers experience an average loss of $700,000 over their working life due to lost wages, reduced pension and other retirement account contributions, and lower Social Security benefits. They jeopardize their own retirement savings, often going into debt.
The most pressing decision is whether to keep working at all! It’s tempting to throw in the towel, thinking you’ll get back to work when your caregiving duties end. But think that through carefully. Many caregivers find they can never really get back into the swing of things after taking off for several years. Before you hand in your resignation or cut back to part-time work, do your homework.
Talk to other family members. They may not realize what serving as the primary caregiver is costing you. Family should discuss chipping in for home care, an adult day center or respite care or a senior living environment.
And talk to your parents. Are they financially able to help pay for care services? If their care needs are increasing, would they consider hiring in-home care, or moving to an assisted living community, skilled nursing facility or other senior support living environment? If these conversations are difficult, enlist the help of a financial advisor. Aging life care professionals (also known as geriatric care managers) can also help care planning discussions go smoothly, and these experts have a wealth of information about senior support services in the community.
Protect your health.
“You need to exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, lower your stress and schedule some me time.”
Wait, before you stop reading and start laughing, consider that the stress of caregiving can raise the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even dementia. “Caregiver burnout” can leave you feeling confused, fatigued, constantly worried, angry … and then, often, guilty about having those emotions!
Carving out time for your own needs is vital. When you’re talking to the person you’re caring for and other family members about the financial implications of your role, don’t forget to share the health implications, as well. After all, failing to take care of your own health makes it more likely that you too will need care in the future.
Learn to delegate. Ask for what you need. Can Mom visit your sister out of state for a few weeks each year? Can your brother who lives nearby come over two evenings a week while you go to the gym? If you’re a spouse caregiver, do other family members assume you prefer to do everything yourself? Set them straight. Friends, neighbors and members of your loved one’s faith community might step in as well.
Examine your priorities. Do you have ongoing commitments that aren’t really necessary? Someone else may need to serve as chairperson for the school committee. You might need to cut back on volunteer work. And whether your holidays will be in person or online, planning and hosting can be a lot of work. Let others take over some of those tasks.
Taking steps to bring better balance into your life will not only benefit you, but also the person you are caring for. A common motto cited by caregiving experts is: “Taking care of yourself makes you a better caregiver.” It will make you a better employee, as well!