When Your Employee is Also a Caregiver

Our family took our first vacation as a complete family of four that we have taken in the past several YEARS April 1–4. (The process of coordinating care for my father-in-law (FIL), who lives with us, took a while to line up care.) When we arrived home, one of the first things my FIL said was “I need to go to a dentist.”

The blow-by-blow description of the events between that first pronouncement of his dental need and the eventual outcome, a full week later, is here. If you don’t have the time or stomach for the detailed version, here is the summary: after discovering that someone who does not have a dentist of his own is in relatively pressing need of dental care, it will take time to arrange that care. Even once you have made arrangements, the complications that occur as a result of radiation treatment for neck cancer will simultaneously eliminate the simple options while piling on new considerations with potentially life-altering ramifications.

The Takeaways

Cancer treatment can have long-term effects long after the actual treatment takes place. Radiation affects more than the area being treated. Ask all the questions. Do your own research so you know what questions to ask.

One small symptom can lead to a domino effect. If you are a caregiver, keep that in mind. As Dad’s pain increasingly grew, and the wait for a dentist dragged on, it became increasingly more difficult for him to swallow, so we stopped giving what we considered the “minor” meds in his medication protocol. We mainly gave him his pain meds. In retrospect that explains why his blood pressure was high when the oral surgeon’s staff checked it and why, behaviorally, he was so taciturn. (I understand being taciturn after more than a week in oral pain and having 4 teeth extracted, but I mean a particular kind of uncooperativeness and combativity as I tried to get him to comply with post-procedure care.) His antidepressant had been one of the things we deleted due to the difficulty swallowing. The difficulty swallowing undoubtedly also led to the dehydration, which led to the incoherence. Everything is connected — meds, food and fluid intake, routines. Fortunately in our case none of the omissions created a life-threatening issue but it was an important reminder.

Medical professionals need to be prepared to deal with patients who have cognitive issues. Everyone we dealt with in this situation handled it pretty well, but professionals are likely to get partial answers and have a patient who is easily agitated. This is not going to be easy for the professional, the patient, or the patient’s family members. Aftercare, also, is going to be a bear. Dad had gauze he was supposed to bite down on to staunch the blood, and he kept chewing it (which he was not supposed to do … swallowing it could create an impactment in his gut) …. when we gave him the medicinal mouthwash and instructed him not to swallow it, but to spit it out, he swallowed it three seconds later … his memory is not sufficient to comply with even simple instructions sometimes.

The oral surgeon (Dr. Daniel Bower of Oral and Facial Surgery Center of Tallahassee) is the only medical professional we have dealt with in the last two years (and there have been a lot of them) who looked at my husband and at me and said, “and how are you doing?” Now, we weren’t going to give him the long version of the fact that eldercare is stressful but at that moment I could have kissed him (or whatever the appropriate reaction would have been). It took maybe ten seconds for him to say something compassionate that reflected the fact that these situations affect the whole family, not just the patient. I was floored and grateful. And I just wonder why none of the others take the time to do that.

Why This Matters at Work

If you supervise people or have an even remote responsibility in the workforce for scheduling, managing, and monitoring of performance, be aware that issues like this are happening for your people frequently, posing challenges to focus, energy level, motivation, and finances.

While many workplaces are aware of the various interruptions child care (and especially sick children issues) may bring, I am guessing that eldercare is less commonly understood. Ten years ago, HR.Com wrote “Twenty-nine percent of those surveyed stated that they had passed on a job promotion or additional training, due to caregiving commitments.” I doubt it has gotten better, given the demographic composition of our country.

I am fortunate to be part of a virtual team with a core value of flexibility. I kept my team posted throughout the day of the two dental visits as my availability changed, and I completed my work that evening. But a traditional office environment makes it more difficult to navigate family-related issues like this, both from the standpoint of how an employee allocates their time and from the less definable how the employee manages their rapidly dwindling emotional reserves.

Have you dealt with an eldercare issue, either personally or as an employer? Do you have anything to add?

This post was previously published on LinkedIn as When Your Employee is Also a Caregiver.

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