I tend to write about caregiving from the perspective of parenting young children, but as many readers have pointed out to me, elder care presents its own challenges. People who’ve never run the gauntlet of combining work and child-rearing can still suddenly wind up responsible for older relatives. Indeed, particularly if a person hasn’t dealt with the work/family thing with kids, it can be quite jarring to reach a point where you feel like you can’t make plans, or commit to a particular trip, or when you start burning through the PTO. Eventually you have to get clear on what will work and what won’t.
I was thinking of this recently when I heard from a reader I’ll call Elaine.* She worked 40 hours/week at a small consulting firm. Her 90-something father had recently had a hospital stay, some time in rehab facilities, and was transitioning into a long term care facility. “His situation changes frequently, is unpredictable and requires spontaneity and flexibility to navigate it,” she told me. Her mother had been managing things, but needed a lot of support during this transition. Elaine’s firm was small enough that she didn’t have FMLA available, “so I’ve burnt through a lot of my PTO and cancelled a vacation.” Her boss was being flexible, and allowing her to make up some work, but “as the situation has worsened with my dad, I have taken even more time, finding myself even more behind. The prospect of taking the vacation later or taking the week before Christmas off as scheduled is rapidly fading.”
As she put it, “This situation is unsustainable into the future. In the short term, I’m working long days and some on weekends to make up the time, but I’m burning out.” In the long term, she was debating quitting altogether, seeing if her boss would let her buy PTO, or downshifting into part time. “In any case, it’s a financial loss, but I don’t see any way around it.”
She wanted to know my thoughts (I welcome reader suggestions too). As I noted, my parents are on the younger side, so I haven’t dealt with this, but reading Elaine’s story of unpredictability and how it was affecting her ability to work reminded me of my first winter with my oldest son. He was in daycare at the time, which had a lot going for it in terms of quality, hours, and being a quarter mile from our apartment. However, even impeccably managed daycares are going to host a lot of germs. Little kids put toys in their mouths and share them around. My son got sick frequently, and then wouldn’t be able to return until he was symptom free. It felt like I never knew if I’d be able to work on any given day. I could do some things while my son napped, since I worked from home, but I couldn’t commit to meetings or events or travel very easily.
At some point, I realized I needed to decide if I cared about that. In short, was work a priority to me? There were all sorts of things I could blame or bemoan (like why I was the parent covering all sick days). But fundamentally, I had to make a decision about whether I was going to do what it took to preserve my ability to work the way I wanted to work. I decided investing in my career was still a priority. So I wound up finding a slew of back-up sitters, and I also eventually hired a nanny because I needed more predictability.
I mentioned this to Elaine, with the caveat that of course caring for parents is different from caring for children. You have a history with your parents and you can’t automatically be in charge and make decisions for people the way you can with young children. Also, the process of aging happens at a different and less predictable pace than the milestones with kids. I can look at my baby and know the situation will be different in 4 years, which is not something you can know with eldercare. That said, some of the caregiving issues were similar. It was admirable that she wanted to be there in person to support her parents as much as she could. But she would eventually need to make a decision. Was succeeding in her current job still a priority or not?
There is no right answer. If she did want to continue moving forward, she would need to protect her ability to work at least a minimum number of hours. She could do a lot for her parents in that scenario. This is not an either/or thing of work-vs-family, but she would also have to enlist more help (some paid, and some help from neighbors or a church community, or what have you). Or she could decide that her job was not a big priority right now. In that case, she could take a leave of absence, or figure out something more low-key to do during this season of life.
She wrote back later that she’d chosen option B. “I ended up quitting my job to spend more time with dad and to help mom with the caregiving. A key point you wrote above — determining whether moving ahead in one’s career is a priority — helped solidify my decision. My career isn’t a priority at the moment, nor am I even sure what I want from my career. For now, I’m taking a ‘sabbatical’ for a few months and during that time will evaluate where I need to be in the longer term.”
I think this is great. We should all be clear on what we want with our time and our lives, and a decision made because it’s what you want to do is much more empowering than one made without considering the various options.
*I suspect I may have used this as a made-up reader name before. I’m not that creative when it comes to fake names, alas.
Photo: There are different seasons of life...