How to look after yourself, your aging loved one and your career
If you are a caregiver responsible for a family member or friend and are also working a paid job at the same time, it can be challenging. In reality, you have two jobs.
Caregiving can be very time-consuming. You may be managing your loved one’s bills, doctor’s appointments, meals and services, as well as providing hands-on care with daily tasks like getting dressed, eating, and bathing -- in addition to your job. In many instances, caregiving doesn’t leave a lot of time for a full-time job or the rest of your life, including taking care of yourself.
Experts estimate that 6 in 10 family caregivers of adults age 50 and over also work a full-time or part-time job.1 And about half of the workforce expects to be providing care for an elder in the next 5 years. Here are five suggestions to help you take care of yourself while caring for aging parents or an elderly loved one.
1) Talk to your employer about the situation. Ask for their support and understanding and explore alternative work arrangements.
Some jobs allow for more flexibility than others, some work logistics can be more complicated, and some employers are more supportive than others. Regardless, there are many options you can discuss and pursue. Whether it’s your human resources (HR) department, manager or supervisor, talk to the appropriate person; let them know what you’re going through and that while you value your job and in no way want to jeopardize or compromise it, you have some additional demands in your life at present.
Explore alternative or modified working arrangements. They may be willing to consider flex-time or flexible hours, perhaps starting your day later so you can help your loved ones in the morning. Maybe working longer hours for 4 days and having the 5th day off would work and be better for your caregiving schedule. Job sharing is also a possibility. Depending on the job, some employers are willing to let employees telecommute and work remotely from home. If your commute is time consuming and your employer works from more than one location, ask about being assigned to a location closer to your home. Can you swap shifts with another employee? Are you able to take on a lighter workload? Can you come in on weekends, evenings, or extra early in the mornings?
Learn about your company’s paid and unpaid leave options. Can you use vacation, personal days or sick time for caregiving? Some companies even allow coworkers to donate their unused leave time to fellow workers who need the extra time. In one study, 68% of the caregivers reported that they had to make special accommodations or shifts in their work situation, from changing work hours to taking time off.
Know that the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees of all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees who work within a 75-mile radius, to up to 12-weeks a year of unpaid leave as well as job protection. To qualify you must have been an employee for at least one year and have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the past year. Military caregivers who qualify are entitled to up to 26 weeks off in a year.2 Some states also have family and medical leave policies and some smaller employers may also offer options.
Some employers also offer Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits and/or counseling, information and referrals for elder care assessments, legal assistance, and/or financial and insurance counseling. A few companies even help pay for backup elder care if your caregiving plans fall through and you need to work. Companies may also offer additional resources such as on-site support groups, concierge services (to help with running errands), health and wellness programs or discounts at health clubs that will help you take care of yourself too. If you aren’t well, you can’t take care of someone else.
2) Schedule time and self-care for yourself. Don’t just talk about, schedule it on a calendar.
As a caregiver, your natural inclination is to provide for your loved one, your family, and nearly everyone else before you focus any attention on yourself. Caregivers who are trying to manage work and caregiving inevitably feel pressured to meet everyone else’s needs: the loved one for whom they are caring, their family and other relationships, pets, and volunteer commitments, as well as work demands and career advancement. It is perhaps the nature of a “caregiver” that we care for others before ourselves, but it’s important to make time for our own well-being.
Plan to exercise 30 minutes a day; even if it’s just a walk. Get some fresh air. Connect with friends in person or online; they can be a great source of comfort and compassion as well as a much-needed distraction. If you have a hobby, especially something creative like playing piano or scrapbooking, it can be a welcome break. Most importantly, be sure to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is one of the most damaging things we can allow; it depletes us physically as well as mentally.
Taking care of yourself is essential if you’re going to care for someone else and keep everything in balance. But don’t just think about it, put it on your calendar or in your daily planner and do it!
3) Get organized.
Caregivers can get easily overwhelmed with all they are trying to juggle and manage. Create a family calendar so everyone knows what’s happening, and use it to track activities and doctor’s appointments. If possible, ask siblings to help out and make a schedule that includes everyone. As much as possible, keep work separate; try to take care of caregiving duties in your personal hours, rather than during work hours. Schedule calls and doctor’s appointments during a lunch hour if you can.
If you are providing meals for your loved one, plan and organize your meals for the week in advance. Do a lot of cooking on the weekend, so can pull meals together quickly when you get home from work.
4) Have a backup plan.
There may be a time when you have to leave work in a hurry. Make sure you have a co-worker or two who can step into your role if needed. Don’t wait for an emergency to set up this backup plan.
There are also times when you may get stuck at the office or in traffic and not be able to get home on time to care for your loved one as planned. Have a friend or neighbor who is nearby, who can step in at the last minute, who has a spare key to your house and can help when you are delayed.
5) Form a support network and exercise support options available to caregivers.
Though not everyone may be willing or able to lend a hand, reaching out to friends and family during this time for emotional support and help with caregiving tasks or household chores can make a huge difference. Don’t be shy about asking. You may be amazed at how readily friends and colleagues will be happy to help. After all, what goes around comes around.
Family and friends can also provide informal caregiving assistance by simply stopping by to sit and watch your loved one for a short time. This can allow the primary caregiver time to finish household errands, dedicate time to work tasks or get some much-needed rest.
Additionally, you will find that more and more adult day care facilities and services are now available. This day-time assistance can be especially helpful to a caregiver who works full time during the day.
Also, investigate your local agency on aging. They can often point you toward community resources that can help you now or may help you later. Find your area agency at n4a.org, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
With the right kind of help and careful planning, you can remain in the workforce as an effective and valued employee and still care for your aging loved one. It’s all about planning, balance and being able to manage caregiver stress.
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