Lynette Whiteman never gets a break.
The 57-year-old spends her days helping her elderly neighbors continue to live in dignity in their own homes. In the evening, she takes care of her own 87-year-old mother Mildred, who lives with Whiteman and her husband.
The daily stresses of caregiving can add up for Whiteman, the executive director of Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey. If she gets delayed at work or even stops for gas on her commute, her dependent and highly anxious mother will call her cellphone panicked about when she’s coming home. Whiteman often has to decline professional and social events because of her mom’s needs.
“I’m glad I'm able to do this for my mother — it’s nice to get back to intergenerational living and taking care of our elders — but it’s not easy,” she said. “You’re never really prepared for the switch from being a child to being a parent, and it’s very difficult.”
Whiteman said she finds refuge in friends, many of whom have gone through or are experiencing the same thing. She is not alone in her struggles.
Much of the media attention on work-life balance has focused on how to juggle a career and raise children, but similar personal and professional sacrifices can be required of those who support aging family members who can't care for themselves.
According to a 2009 study from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, at least 43.5 million Americans are already providing care for someone 50 years and older, and that number is only going to increase as the population ages. As many of those Americans are finding out, the impact that can have on a career is enormous, especially for women, who are more likely to be caregivers. A 2010 MetLife study found that leaving the workforce early or reducing hours to care for an elderly relative costs the average woman caregiver $324,044 in lost wages and Social Security benefits.
“Caregiving is so physically and emotionally demanding, and some people have to cut back hours or retire early to take care of an elderly relative,” said Laura Polacheck of AARP of Utah. “Caregiving is a full-time job, and if you already have full-time job, you’re left with no time at all.”
America is getting older. The Administration on Aging projects that while those 65 and older numbered 39.6 million in 2009 — or 12.9 percent of the U.S. population — that number is due to nearly double to 72.1 million by 2030, when the 65 and over crowd will make up 19 percent of the population. And government data show older Americans are living longer. In 2000, a 65-year-old could expect to live to age 83, while in 1900 it was only age 77.
Maybe it was easier when both members of a married couple didn't have careers, Whiteman sometimes thinks, as she adjusts her schedule to take her mom to the doctor, or picks up her cellphone to give reassuring words that she will be home from work soon. She cares deeply about her work, and her husband has a successful career as a geriatric neurologist. But after working with the elderly all day, both come home exhausted and struggle to maintain the energy to deal with her mother's needs. "It's not for the faint of heart," Whiteman said.
Coupled with the aging population is the increase in the number of women working outside the home. The Department of Labor reported that between 1996 and 2006, the number of dual-income families increased by 31 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, the share of married couples with children in which both parents worked was 59 percent.