"Mom Needs Care—What About My Job?"

This month, in honor of Labor Day, let's take a look at a growing group of people who are holding down a full-time job, and then some.

Worried woman at work looking at her phone

Wendy was at the peak of her career. She'd just gotten a big promotion involving a lot of travel, which she enjoyed. The salary boost was awesome as well—time to finally pay off those student loans! And she was confident she could pull it off, now that the twins were in school.

But then, her elderly mother suffered a stroke. Living alone, Mom needed help managing her rehab appointments, and she couldn't bathe or prepare meals without help. Now it seems that every time Wendy is immersed in a project, she gets a call from Mom or the doctor. And it looks like Mom's recovery is going to take a long time.

Wendy is not alone. With the aging of our population and changes in family structure over the last generation, millions of people in the U.S. are coping with a difficult balancing act. They’re holding down a job while caring for elderly or disabled parents—which is often a full-time job in itself. The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates that more than 1 in 6 American workers is also caring for an elderly or disabled family member.

In many respects, caregiving is harder today, and getting harder. Today's very oldest seniors had lots of children—the baby boom. But the boomers had fewer children, so there are fewer caregivers to go around. And women were traditionally expected to provide most of the care—they were home anyway, right? No longer.

Complicating the picture, the children of the baby boomers—the millennial generation—delayed childbearing. They are 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 quite a stressful task!

Here are three things working caregivers should consider:

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 percent of working caregivers actually lost their jobs, and another 10 percent had to change careers.

Constant distraction is the worst aspect, 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 study from the AARP showed that for every dollar employers invest in caregiver support, they reap a return of up to $4.45.

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

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 it through carefully. Many caregivers find they are never really able to get back into the swing of things after taking off for several years. So 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, and they might chip in for home care, an adult day center or other care support.

And if you're caring for an older parent, it might be time for a talk with them, too. Are they financially able to pay for care services? If their care needs are increasing, would they consider a move 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 (geriatric care managers) can also help family 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."

Senior woman helps disabled spouse who uses a wheelchair

If that sentence tempted you to stop reading this article right now, 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 maybe guilty about having those emotions!

Carving out time for your own needs is vital. As you talk to other family members about the financial implications of your role, don't forget to share the health implications, as well. Failing to take care of your own health makes it even more likely that you will need care in the future.

Learn to delegate. Ask for what you need. Can Mom stay with 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? Friends, neighbors and members of your loved one's faith community might step in as well. And if you're a spouse caregiver, do other family members assume you prefer to do everything yourself? Set them straight.

Examine your priorities. Do you have ongoing commitments that aren't really necessary? Someone else may need to chair the PTA fundraiser or the church picnic this year. Holiday gatherings can happen at someone else's house.

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!

Learn More

Read about steps that a variety of companies are taking to lessen the impact of caregiving on their employees in Supporting Working Caregivers: Case Studies of Promising Practices, a study from the AARP and ReACT.

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2018 IlluminAge