One weekend last summer I got a call that something was wrong at my parents’ house and could I go check on them immediately. I left the house the next morning and didn’t return for a week. It turned out they were both sick and in seven days I admitted my father to the ER, and then to another hospital, found respite care for my mother, sorted through my parents’ finances and consulted an eldercare attorney. It all happened so fast that I never took time off of work. I just tried to get my work done on top of everything else I was doing. And I learned some valuable lessons about managing caregiving and career that week.
Luckily, I have incredible flexibility at work, and I can work anywhere. So it didn’t impact my coworkers if I worked from the office, from home, or from my parents’ front lawn. I also work for a company that values family; I could have taken some days off if I had asked for them. So why didn’t I? Because I wasn’t prepared.
Here’s the thing about eldercare: you never know when you’ll be called on to step in. Childcare isn’t exactly predictable either, I know, but there are some things you know in advance. Both times I took maternity leave, I started a spreadsheet weeks before my due date and I updated it every night before I left the office. It listed what I was working on, the status of each project, client contact info, passwords to documents and websites, and what needed to happen next. My boss and my teammates knew where to find it and to access it in the event Junior arrived early and my leave started ahead of plan. When I “took” time for eldercare issues that document didn’t exist, plus some of my work was behind schedule and my files were disorganized – I filed things on my hard drive instead of the server for example. I didn’t want to ask for help because I didn’t want anyone to know I didn’t have everything under control. As a result, on top of touring assisted living facilities, looking for a hospital bed for my father, and negotiating the healthcare system, I was trying to manage my client work, catch up on assignments from the week before, and file outstanding expense reports.
Here are eight lessons I learned that week and in the following weeks:
- Keep your affairs in order at work. I’m not suggesting that everyone with a parent aged 65 or older keep a running spreadsheet of what they’re working on, but do stay on top of assignments and keep organized. Copy coworkers on emails to clients. Keep the boss updated. File and label documents so people can find your work. You never know when you might need to pass things off to a coworker.
- Likewise, when it comes to your eldercare “work” you want to stay on top of things too. Need to call about the phone service, file insurance paperwork or schedule a podiatry appointment for your father? Do it now. That way when a client has a crisis, or the team asks you to stay late or come in early, or an overtime shift opens up; you’ll have some runway. Tackle things as they come up; you might not have time the next day. Your caregiving years are not the years to slack off.
- Pace yourself. If you’re a caregiver, depending on the situation, you may not be in a position to be a rainmaker or a team leader. Maybe you need to shift gears for a while and take on a different role at work. Be realistic about what is possible and remember, caregiving can be long-term, but ultimately it’s a temporary assignment. Whatever role you decide is best for right now, know that it doesn’t have to be forever.
- If you do decide to scale back or take a different role temporarily, make sure you renegotiate that decision with your manager and teammates. Over communicate. Don’t assume others understand what your plan is or that they are on board with it. Figure out how you can add value right now and make sure your company values whatever that is.
- If you can’t shift gears at work, be clear with doctors, family members and paid care providers what your constraints are. Don’t be afraid to ask a doctor to give you a window when you can call them – and actually reach them. Ask the office scheduler to only book morning or end of day appointments for you. Be polite about it, but do ask for what you need so you can get your work done.
- If you can, lower your standards. Before I had kids and my parents needed my help, I used to think that if I didn’t beat a deadline, I missed it. In recent years, I’ve relaxed my rules. I aim to meet every deadline, but I don’t kill myself to work up to some self-imposed standard that isn’t necessary.
- Be prepared. Don’t leave home without work. Don’t leave work without home. I bought a Wi-Fi hotspot and I keep it and my laptop with me at all times. That way I can take advantage of time spent sitting and waiting; we caregivers do a lot of that. I’ve worked in ERs, hospice homes and parking lots. And I keep a copy of all of my parents’ medications, insurance information and medical forms with me at all times too. If an insurance rep calls, I have what I need. If there is a medical emergency, I can head right over. No need to stop home first to get information.
- No matter how difficult it is, stay in the game. I have wanted to quit my job so many times in the last few years because the stress of managing care and career are too much. But I don’t because I won’t be a caregiver forever, but I will need money forever. Women typically spend less time in the workforce due to childcare and eldercare issues than men, on average earn less due to the gender-based wage gap, and are likely to live longer. We need every dollar we can make. It’s hard to look past the stress of caregiving, but focus on the long term.
Balancing caregiving with career is one of the most difficult things I have to do as an adult. It’s never easy, but I have learned how to make it more manageable.