“I should just quit,” I thought to myself. I was exhausted. I had woken up at 5 a.m. that day. I answered some work emails, saw the kids off to school, wrote a freelance article and then drove an hour to take my mother to a routine checkup at her primary care doctor’s office.
“Why isn’t your mother eating more? Why don’t you call her every day? Why don’t you have her come live with you?” The doctor was peppering me with questions.
“I work,” I replied meekly. I felt guilty and defeated, and if I could have, I would have emailed my resignation to my boss at that very moment. Working and eldercare just didn’t feel compatible. But I couldn’t stop earning. I was a breadwinner for my family. I had to find a way to make it all work.
Balancing eldercare and a career isn’t easy. Many family caregivers struggle at work, and as a result they may switch to a less demanding job, take time off or quit work altogether to accommodate their caregiving duties. But cutting back at work isn’t always an option — nor does it need to be. For every caregiver who scales back, there is another worker who continues on their career path while caring for an aging relative. I resisted the urge to quit while I was caring for my mother, and six years later, after caring for my father and then my spouse, I am still going after my career goals.
I asked some family caregivers and industry experts how they balance eldercare and career. Here is their best advice.
1. Clue in coworkers
As the director of marketing for BoomerAlert, a personal medical alert system for senior citizens, Tara Skinner says she sees the struggles of family caregivers up close. One of the aspects of eldercare that can be so challenging is that it’s unpredictable. You never know when you might get an emergency phone call and need to drop everything to assist your parent. Therefore, you need to be prepared to have your coworkers cover for you if and when that call comes. She recommends copying a coworker or two on important emails and making sure a few have access to any projects you’re working on. That entails sharing the location of files, important deadlines and letting them know who the key decision makers are.
2. Ask for flexibility at work
Nooria Khan, a content marketer, credits her flexible work hours with helping her balance work and caregiving for her parents. She says she discussed a manageable solution with her employer and then created a schedule that worked for both parties.
“It is very important to convey and discuss sensitive issues with your employer,” Khan says.
She says she keeps her manager up to date on what is happening on the caregiving front and then brainstorms solutions to manage both. Caregivers are wise to remember that flexibility is a privilege, not a right. It’s your responsibility to find a way to make it work for your employer and you.
3. Find a peer group
Just as it’s important to have support for your work assignments, it’s also helpful to find support for your caregiving responsibilities. Jodi Womack is an author and speaker who travels extensively for her career and recently moved 2,500 miles away from her elderly parents.
To help her deal with the stresses of caring long distance and balancing a demanding career with the needs of her parents, she joined a support group.
“It’s a very isolating experience to be home and try to figure this out on my own,” she says. “Finding a support group has been hugely helpful, having people who are going through similar experiences. As well as learning from their experience, we’ve shortened the learning curve in knowing what to ask doctors for and what health insurance and Medicare will pay for.”
Through the group, she has also been able to find nonprofit organizations that loan items like wheelchairs, handicap toilet seats and walkers. By leveraging the group’s collective experiences, she has been able to cut down on the time that most caregivers spend researching and figuring out common caregiving responsibilities, opening up more space to focus on her job.
4. Use your village
Flexible work arrangements and peers who support you come in handy when work gets busy. But what about when caregiving gets even busier than usual? Carol Gee, a writer living in Atlanta, says she relies on friends, family and the community to help her. She was living in a different state, working full time and raising a family, when it became apparent that her father could no longer live alone. So she and her sister found a senior living facility for him, and they support their father’s needs by relying on his church congregation, relatives and the staff at his new home. Gee says the “shared care” worked well and allowed her to continue to focus on her career and minimize the days she needed to take off from work.
5. Ditch the guilt
Perhaps one of the most effective strategies for balancing eldercare and career isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Psychologist Dr. Sabina Brennan encourages caregivers to set boundaries and become “a guilt-free zone.”
“Acknowledge that being a care partner is an important part of your life and of who you are,” she says. “Nonetheless, you need to make sure to also acknowledge that you are entitled to have a life of your own and to have relationships with other people in addition to the person that you care for.”
In other words, you have every right to prioritize earning a living. Caregivers often feel guilty for being at work instead of being with the person they care for and then they feel guilty for missing work when they prioritize their caregiving responsibilities. I know I did. To help combat that guilt, give yourself permission to be both a worker and a caring family member and accept that you are doing the best you can in all areas of your life.
“Acknowledge your own limitations,” Brennan says. “Also acknowledge the important role that you are carrying out and accept that you cannot stay healthy and provide a good standard of care if you try to do everything single-handedly. Don’t waste your precious ‘me time’ by feeling guilty.”