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The AARP Poll Have you taken time
off work to care for a
loved one?

How to Balance Work and Caregiving

You have a stressful deadline at work. Your father has awakened you every night this week. The home nurse never seems to come on time. Your supervisor asks why you were late to work again. Between taking your mother to doctor visits and responding to crises, you’ve missed a lot of work, and you feel you’re letting your colleagues down. Your parent needs full-time care, but you can’t afford to quit your job or take time off.

Adult children caring for older parents face these problems every day. Those trying to balance care and career get caught in the middle. They wind up distracted at work, emotionally drained, physically exhausted.

Many have developed effective strategies that can help. In addition, support for caregivers from employers and other community sources has increased. This article presents an overview of the issues involved, and presents ideas to help you manage your dual role more effectively.

Caregivers on the Clock More than 26 million American workers are caring for their parents or older relatives and friends. While they share a common goal with employers—maximizing productive time on the job—they take their family commitments seriously. Many employers are sympathetic to these demands. But employees can be reluctant to open up to supervisors about caregiving obligations, fearing it will affect job security or career prospects.

Naturally, companies are concerned about the bottom-line cost of their caregiving employees. So some employers have begun to offer caregiver support to minimize the disruption. For example, some have instituted programs that provide information and referrals to community services, counseling, respite care, legal assistance, financial assistance, and caregiver support groups. Some even offer paid leave for caregivers and flexible work hours.

Since 1993, federal law also has offered some support for working caregivers through the Family and Medical Leave Act. This entitles eligible workers up to twelve weeks a year of unpaid leave for family caregiving without the loss of job security or health benefits. While well-intentioned, it doesn’t mean much for those who can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Furthermore, the law excludes many from coverage since coverage is based on company size and the amount of time a worker has been employed.

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More than 26 million American workers are caring for their parents or older relatives and friends.

The Doubling of Demands Each working caregiver’s job is different, and even within the same company different managers may be more or less supportive. As a start, adapt some of these points for yourself:

  • Find out your company’s policy regarding caregivers, and whether it offers benefits that could help you. Ask your employer if there is an Employee Assistance Program. If you are uncomfortable raising this issue directly, look in the company’s personnel manual or other human resources content.
  • Ask your human resources or personnel department to give you information on the Family and Medical Leave Act. Have them send a copy to your supervisor as well, if appropriate.
  • Take advantage of flex-time policies, or ask for your own if no formal policy exists. In large firms, colleagues might cover for you. Can you work part-time from home? Be ready to return the benefit later as others hit the caregiving stage of life.
  • Offer to work an unpopular shift to gain flex time, or make up by working when most people want to be off. This flexibility on your part shows your employer that you are committed to the company and to your job.
  • Consider job-sharing or working part time as some family caregivers do.
  • Whenever possible, avoid mixing work with caregiving. If you have to make phone calls or search the Internet for information related to your parents' needs, do it on your lunch break.
  • Manage your time carefully at home, at work, and when you must take time off for caregiving. Set priorities, and then tackle the most important items first. Delegate at work and at home. Pace yourself.
  • Turn to the community. Its resources provide a key help for caregivers.
  • Take care of your own needs including your physical health. Eat right, get your sleep, and don’t slack off on exercise. Make time to do what you enjoy even when your schedule is packed. When the pressure spikes, take a break and disappear briefly for a short walk or hot bath. Talk to someone to release a little pressure—your spouse, a close friend, a counselor or member of the clergy.
  • Consider talking to your supervisor or manager about your caregiving demands. It’s better that they hear from you why you’re coming in late or seem preoccupied. Chances are your company will reward your honesty and sense of responsibility toward both your family and your job.
  • Be sure to thank those at work for their helping hands. Agree to take on extra work when the dust settles, and help someone else who’s suddenly thrust into a situation you may know all too well.

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© 2003, 2004, 2007 AARP. Reprinting by permission only.

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Elinor Ginzler Balancing Work and Caregiving
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