Portrait of an American Caregiver: Balancing Career and Caregiving
Caregiving is a 20 Hour Per Week Job
Like Clark Kent, caregivers have to change from mild-mannered career-person to superhero caregiver in the blink of an eye. According to the AARP, 25.5 million Americans are balancing caring for an aging loved one alongside a lifelong career. Typically, family caregivers spend around 20 hours per week on caregiving tasks — that’s like having a part-time job on top of a full-time career! People who care for aging loved ones often get less sleep, spend their evenings and weekends performing caregiving tasks after work, and even have to take time off work when emergencies happen. It’s no surprise that caregivers are often tired, stressed, and feel overworked — all which damage their career performance.
As we stated earlier, an average caregiver can lose up to $324,004 in wages and Social Security benefits. They may struggle to maintain 40 hours a week to keep insurance coverage through their work, which is critical, since as many as 23% of caregivers providing care for more than 5 years report poor health (National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP; November 2009).
Tips for Managing Career and Caregiving
On top of daily care tasks, there are often doctor’s appointments that interfere with regular work hours. Burnout is prevalent among caregivers, who often risk getting sick themselves, which causes more hours away from the office. However, there are some basic things you can do to protect yourself from losing wages at your job.
Utilize Family Medical Leave and Flex-Time
Many companies will allow employees to use Flex-Time to spend a few days a week working from home, or to leave early on certain afternoons and make up time on the weekends. See if you can set up an official Flex-Time schedule so you still hit your 40 hour mark and keep your benefits, but have a more flexible schedule to accommodate your loved one’s needs.
If you need more time off, look into the Family Medical Leave Act. The FMLA states that eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year. While you may lose wages, you will keep your benefits and insurance.
Inquire About Employee Assistance Programs
Some companies have unique fundraising and donation programs to help employees in times of family emergency. For example, some companies have an Employee Assistance Program, allowing employees to donate a small amount from every paycheck to go into a fund, which recipient employees can withdraw from to assist with medical bills or other unexpected emergencies. See if your company has a similar program and if you can benefit during your time of need.
Talk to Human Resources and Your Manager
Don’t try to push through your struggles all alone. Human resources and your management team are there to help protect their employees. It’s very likely your manager will be willing to work with you if you need a little flexibility, as long as your work performance isn’t heavily impacted. For example, if your aging family member has regular doctor appointment with a specialist, work together with your manager to determine one day a week you can regularly leave early. Just be sure to offer to come in early on a different day to make up for it! Likewise, see if you can work a few hours a week from home, so your schedule is more flexible. If you are open with your manager and human resources, they will be able to point you to many resources the company offers, and explain your rights and benefits.
Many companies offer work laptops that allow employees to do all their regular work from home. Your boss may allow you to telecommute indefinitely, allowing you the freedom to care for your loved one and stay with them at all times. Many caregivers find immense freedom in being able to stay home with their family member.
Request Volunteer Caregiver Relief
Some non-profit organizations, such as the Center for Volunteer Caregiving, offer caregiver relief. If you need someone to help get your aging loved one to a doctor’s appointment while you’re at work — or even if you just need a date night out with your friends or spouse — you can request a volunteer to come take on that task for you.
Think Hard Before Leaving Your Job
Particularly if you’re on the brink of burnout, the notion of leaving your job can be tempting. however, some caregivers find that staying home increases burnout because they never “get a break” from being a caregiver. Sometimes going into the office provides a slice of normalcy and helps create a definitive dividing line between your caregiving and your career. Furthermore, career men and women over 50 years of age are close to retirement; it can be difficult to return to the workforce if you decide you miss having a job. Take time to consider what works best for your unique situation. Sometimes switching to part-time work provides the necessary relief. If you do choose to leave your job, it’s recommended that caregivers join a non-profit or volunteer group. Having a reason to leave the house and use your skills provides a boost to self-worth and endorphins and keeps you grounded. It’s healthy to have an identity outside of being a caregiver; don’t get so wrapped up in caring for your loved one that you forget what makes you special and amazing.
Caregiving is Just One Piece of the Portrait
Caregivers are incredible and strong men and women who get a unique inside perspective on the aging process and the human experience — but remember, caring for your loved one is only part of your life. You may also be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend. You are a brilliant expert in your field, a hard worker in your office or classroom or restaurant. You’re a valued colleague. You still have favorite television shows to catch up on; you have favorite meals to cook; you have unique hobbies and interests that still deserve your time. Maybe you’ve got kids, and soccer practices, and piano recitals, and bedtime stories. All those statistics and percentages are really just a small part of your story.