National Edition

'Caregiving' it all: When taking care of mom and dad impacts work-life balance

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5 2013 9:30 a.m. MST

The “average” caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works outside the home, and 74 percent of caregivers have worked at a paying job, according to a 2012 AARP report. With the rise of dual-income families, the issue of who is going to care for mom and dad when they need assistance with daily tasks is increasingly a question where two careers hang in the balance.

Cali Williams Yost, a workplace flexibility strategist and author of "Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day," said that the work-life challenges of caregiving impact everyone in a family. “We think it’s mostly women, but there are a lot of male caregivers,” she said. “I think one of the challenges is men feel left out. If women are unprepared, men feel really unprepared. Adult caregiving is going to become an everybody issue.”

Double-decker club sandwich

For many Americans in their 40s to 60s, providing support has already become a constant in their lives. Members of this “sandwich generation” are trying to balance their own financial needs while getting squeezed from both sides as they help their kids and their parents. A recent report from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, a research center on aging, found that six in 10 Americans past the age of 50 provide financial support to family members, with 68 percent supporting adult children and 16 percent supporting parents.

Those caregivers are often in their 50s and 60s, said Maddy Dychtwald, co-founder of Age Wave, and are often caregiving while helping their adult children financially and trying to save or start their own retirements. “It’s a generational generosity,” she said. “Forget the sandwich generation — this is more like the double-decker club generation.”

And that strain can take its toll on the emotional, social and mental health of caregivers, which in turn can impact their professional lives. According to the MetLife report, caregivers aged 18 to 39 showed significantly higher rates of high cholesterol, hypertension, depression and heart disease in comparison to non-caregivers of the same age. Caregivers of all ages showed increases in poor health and higher levels of absenteeism from work than their counterparts.

Caregivers also show increased levels of stress — especially women. Whiteman said the increased emotional toll of caregiving has impacted her marriage and social life. Every time she thinks about going to a movie or dinner, she has to weigh the “huge emotional costs” of dealing with her mother’s anxiety.

Whiteman added, though, that in many ways she’s lucky. Her workplace is dedicated to helping caregivers, and so they are sympathetic to her need for flexibility.

But experts say most workplaces haven’t adjusted to the needs of the growing elderly population. And taking time away from work can be detrimental to your own career and financial security, Dychtwald said. “The corporate response has been very slow,” she said. “And so people are finding they may have to take time off or turn down a promotion, and at that point in your career, it’s a whammy. The professional and financial ramifications are extraordinary.”

Preparing for the changes

Whiteman learned her father had died in November 2011. She was devastated, her heart badly shaken. But her mother, who didn't even know how to use a checkbook without her husband's help, was lost in the world. In spite of warnings from friends, Whiteman took her mother in, no questions asked.

"I think at the time, it sounds like it's a good idea, but you don't realize how hard it's going to be," she said. "I like my alone time, and I never get to be by myself. I hate to cook, and now I have to cook every day for her. … I'm not sure I would have changed my mind about having her come live with us, but there's all this stuff I never thought about that I wish I would have considered."

People like Whiteman often don’t realize how much work caregiving is until it’s too late, said Paul DelPonte, director of programs, operations and development at the National Alliance for Caregiving.

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