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May 1, 2015

Caregiving and Work – When the Cracks Start to Show

Charlie Swift

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I'd got no further than taking off my coat and turning on my laptop when my desk phone rang – it was my mom. "Charlie? I'm so sorry. Oh, Charlie. I don't know what to do."

This was the woman who always knew what to do. The 70-something who thought nothing of digging the garden by moonlight; who strode out excitedly on a windy day to photograph the sky, the trees, the ships. My mother was a proud lady so she rarely asked anyone for help. She had never, in her words, "disturbed" me at work before. Exactly how serious was this going to be?

It was an emergency. Mom had fallen – in her bedroom, of all places – and somehow she'd gotten herself downstairs to her phone before nearly fainting with the pain. It turned out that she'd broken the top of her femur, an injury that would have lasting complications. And so began a new way of life for both of us. Just as Mom was forced to face her vulnerability and dependence, I discovered how unprepared I was for the overwhelming emotional and practical impact of having a parent who needed care.

My boss was supportive, my colleagues were concerned, and my projects survived thanks to the team's care. I was very lucky. But I was operating in a haze, thanks to the almost daily dash, after work and at weekends, to visit Mom. I was also on a steep learning curve, trying to make sense of, and coordinate, the complicated medical and social care that was available for her (or not) from a mishmash of agencies.

As time went on, we all adjusted. Other members of the family pitched in, the pressure lessened, my mom stopped fighting her fate and started working out strategies to cope mentally and physically, and I refocused on work. I agreed back-up plans with relatives and colleagues so I wouldn't be caught out so badly again. But I always had a intrusive worry: what nasty surprise would come next and how would we all manage?

My experience taught the whole team a lesson: we realized how vulnerable we were to life’s unpredictable events. So I suggested that we cross-train in each other’s areas of responsibility. My manager was only too pleased, recognizing that we’d be better prepared for the next time any of us needed to disappear. And everyone benefited from the development opportunity.

We might pride ourselves on being professionals who compartmentalize our lives so well that "domestic" issues are kept at home and we can “sail on” at work, untouched. But that is an unrealistic approach for both employer and employee. We are complete human beings who experience all of life at once and, I believe, this is as much our strength as our weakness.

My experience of caregiving was short-lived and almost trivial compared with millions of other people's. My respect is greatest for those staff who are part of the "sandwich generation," caring for parents and children. The people who I know in this position are experts at juggling their responsibilities and are often the most efficient at work. But don’t despair: if you're a carer and find yourself struggling, some of these practical tips will help.

I went on to contribute my energy, brainpower and people skills to my workplace for several more years and earned a promotion before it was finally time to move on. None of this would have been possible without my employers' longsightedness and commitment to me, for which I will always be grateful. In fact, it was exactly because I felt so valued that I did stay so long.

If you're a manager of a caregiver, and are doubting the sense of sticking with him or her, take a look at our tool designed for you. You'll find there's loads of ways to make an otherwise tricky situation really work for you, your whole team, and your business. It’ll be worth it.

Question: What tips do you have for combining work and caregiving responsibilities? Share your views and experiences in our comments section below.

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10 comments on “Caregiving and Work – When the Cracks Start to Show”

  1. to the caregivers, value what you do ask for contributions for your efforts,kit is surprising what appears

  2. If I understand correctly, both Dean and bill suggested that caregivers must somehow be spoiled a little. Great idea! Ask them what would be a real treat and see if it can be done somehow. I'm sure some people would love a spa visit, others may appreciate a home cooked meal and others may simply enjoy some time off work.

  3. I am a caregiver to my bipolar wife, and I work as a Business Analyst. I am fortunate that much of my work is independent, allowing me time to take the frantic phone calls and to reply to irrational text messages. We live in a relationship where my wife is suspicious of all others. She has completely limited her contact with people.
    My employer does nothing. They passively accept that I am doing the best work I can, my hours are erratic, and that I can spend hours of my day on the phone. I make up my time when I can and produce excellent work. The sad truth is, if my life were to cause my work to be poor, I am sure I would be gone. My supervisor is a bean counter with little tolerance for anything.
    I am isolated socially at work because people don't understand. I generally report to various project managers. Some are understanding, others make things worse for me simply because they have their own priorities and my life is not one of them.
    I love my work but at times I find it hard to do. Without being able to clearly separate my home and work life, the concentration I require at work at times fails me.

    1. Hello Terry, and thank you for taking the time and energy to share your story. I'm guessing that you're always tired, often anxious, feel isolated, and never find time to look after yourself? If so, alarm bells are ringing. Carers such as yourself are more likely to get ill, just as you fear, and then the issues snowball. So, can you find just 10 mins to get online one day and search for a local group of people who will understand your situation because they share it? Who might even be able to share the load a little, practically or emotionally? If you could take a moment to look around in what must feel like a siege situation, you won't be the only one struggling. And when was the last time you ate properly, as my mother would have said! Body and soul need each other to thrive. You've taken the first step by posting your comment. Now take a look at our article How to Juggle Caregiving Responsibilities and Work and make a plan to build some defenses for yourself. Here's the link:
      Most of all, don't try to go it alone.
      Charlie and the Mind Tools Team

    2. Hi Terry,
      Just wanted to say thanks for sharing, and I hope that by opening up here it has provided some relief.

      Within our Career Club area, we have a stress support group - - This is where members post some of their challenges and concerns, and receive support, input and ideas. It might be something to consider in addition to the resources contained within the article Charlie mentioned.

      We're here for you if you want some support.

      Midgie, and the Mind Tools Team

  4. Wow Terry - I don't even know how you do it. I admire you for doing what you are and keeping up your job and other responsibilities. I can't offer any advice because I've never been in a similar situation, but I do hope with all my heart that things will change for the better for both you and your wife at some point.

  5. Great article. My MIL passed in 2008, that was the beginning of our experience as the 'sandwich generation'. My 77 year old mother is still independent however I know our time is rolling around again, in order to care for her. I embrace it however I am concerned. My job can turn into a flex-work role if I need it to be; not everyone is blessed with that ability. Again, great article.

    1. Thanks, Rhonda. I wish you and your family all the best, now and in the future. And if you need to "bend our ear" ever, please do. Have a look at Midgie's comment for more info.
      Charlie, and the Mind Tools Team

  6. Hello everyone,

    I am Sushant Jain. I have spent over a year motivating and inspiring people to get out of their comfort zone and get a front-row seat in life.

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