How to Balance Eldercare and a Career
Balancing eldercare and career is not an easy feat; eldercare is intense and unpredictable. And unlike with parenting, few women plan to take on the responsibilities of caring for an older adult. When they do, it can be difficult to show up for work the way they are used to. As a result, most working daughters find they need to make some adjustments to how they work, live and care.
Here are our best 14 tips for balancing eldercare and career:
1. Get really clear about what matters most to you – at this time in your life. If you’re working because you need to earn a living, and you’re caring for someone whose needs are intensive, then you likely don’t have the time, or the energy, for much else. You need to be honest with yourself about just how much else you can take on – right now. (We’ll come back to this point in a minute.) Ask yourself what truly matters to you. Maybe it’s a relationship, or exercise, or a volunteer role. Whatever doesn’t make your “matters most” list, consider putting on hold for now.
2. Accept the situation you are in. Balancing eldercare with the demands of your job was likely never part of your career plan. But if you spend your energy lamenting that fact, the experience is going to be more difficult for you. Caregiving requires energy – don’t waste that energy on resistance. Research actually suggests that people who take an active, problem-solving approach to caregiving are less likely to feel stressed than those who worry or feel helpless. Now while this might not help with the time management aspect of balancing work and care, it will help with the mental aspect of it. Remember, most of us won’t be caregiving forever. The average length of time a caregiver provides unpaid care to a loved one is 4.5 years. So, when you’re thinking about what matters most to you right now and what you might cut out of your life – know that it’s not forever.
3. Think about what matters to you overall. This is your post-caregiving plan. Thinking about your life after caregiving is an excellent way to prioritize competing demands during caregiving. What aspects of your life will you need to have in place when caregiving ends? You’ll need to still be employed. You’ll likely want to be healthy, remain in an important relationship – what else? Then determine what is the minimum effort you have to make in these areas to make sure they are intact when caregiving ends. Make room for those things, and, use them as a decision-making filter. When you are struggling with prioritizing your own needs with the needs of the person you care for, ask yourself how your decisions will impact you now, and, in the future.
4. Let everything else in your life slide. Anything that didn’t make one of those two lists – what matters now and what matters post-caregiving – gets put on indefinite hold. Now is not the time to take up a new hobby or join a book club – not unless you want to be constantly stressed and tired.
5. Lower your standards. Lower your standards at home. Beds do not have to be made and dishes can stay in the sink for a day – or two. Lower them in life. Ten minutes does count as a workout if that’s all the time you have. Lower your standards as a friend. Trust that you true friends will understand that your overtaxed right now and you may cancel more than you show up. Lower your standards as a caregiver. Some of the caregiving tasks you do require an A effort – like sorting medications and other medical tasks. For others, like housekeeping, shoot for a B or even a C. There are no gold stars in caregiving.
6. Let people help you and once again, lower your standards. Maybe your sister doesn’t prepare your father’s meals the way he likes them. Or maybe your brother will let your mother sit in front of the TV all day when you travel for work. So what? Let it go. Keep a list of things that you wish you had help with and when someone asks, “How can I help.” Show them the list and let them choose a task.
7. Get super organized at work. Prepare for a crisis so that you are ready to walk away from work at a minute’s notice. How? If you work with other people, don’t leave any files on your hard drive. Use the company server or Google drive so that if you’re unavailable others can access important information. Copy a colleague on all correspondence. The goal is to make it easy for a coworker to fill in for you. If you work alone, make sure you are staying on top of deadlines when you can and keep your client’s contact information on your phone. If an emergency arises, it should be simple for you to give clients notice that you’re unavailable. Build a network of competitors. If you cannot deliver for your clients, at least you can refer their business to someone else.
8. Talk to your boss and/or clients. No one likes surprises in business. Let your boss and/or your clients know that you have caregiving responsibilities. Don’t get into the gory details – spare them the stories of the siblings who aren’t helping or the older parent who won’t listen. Just let them know that you have an outside responsibility and could be called away. Tell them what you have put in place, or what you expect to do, in the event you are disrupted in your work. Assure them you are on the job now, but you have contingency plans should you need them. Don’t apologize. No one should ever feel sorry for caring for someone else. Just take pride in your proactive planning.
9. Get really organized at home. Make back up plans for your own life too. Do you have plants that need watering or a dog that needs walking? Make sure a friend or neighbor has a key to your home. If you’re stuck at the office, delayed at the airport, or waiting in the emergency room, who can you call and what do they need to help you?
10. Get your caregiving paperwork in order. Speaking of getting stuck at the office or on business travel, be prepared for a caregiving emergency when you’re not around. Have you hidden a key at your parent’s place? Have you posted their advanced directive and healthcare proxy on their refrigerator so an EMT will find them? (We recommend these magnetic fridge folders.) Do you have electronic files or photos that you can easily email of their medication lists and do you have their doctor’s phone number in your contacts? You should.
11. Talk to your parents, or whoever you care for, about your job. Let them know that you take your caregiving responsibilities very seriously and let them know all that you are willing to do for them. But also let them know that you have a job and that it requires your equal attention. Don’t apologize. No one should ever feel sorry for earning a living. Your parents may need to hire additional help and/or change their living arrangements to get the support they need. That is their decision. If they are of sound mind and have the means, you should feel no guilt in prioritizing your job.
12. Write this quote from Joan Baez on a post it note and stick it on your laptop or desk lamp or the back of your iPhone, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Make it your mantra. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, what one thing can you do to move forward? Do it.
13. Learn to work anywhere, anytime. Keep your laptop and its charger, your phone and its charger, a notebook, a pen, and some kind of Wi-Fi device with you at all times. Work where you can, when you can. Let go of any old ideas that you can only write, for example, when you have three hours of time and complete silence. Write a word at a time if that’s what it takes. Let go of the idea that you only review spreadsheets on a large monitor or on a color coded, printed piece of paper. Learn to scroll on an iPhone. It all adds up (pun intended).
14. Give yourself a break. Balancing eldercare and career is not easy. You will make mistakes. You won’t be perfect. That is okay. Remind yourself of what you are doing well -and showing up counts – and don’t beat yourself up for being a mere mortal.