…And other symptoms of incongruent workplaces
When I first began caregiving my demented mother in 2010, I was in no position to work outside my home. I had been a self-employed graphic artist for many years. My husband had a full-time job with good benefits, affording me the ability to work from my home-based office, take care of the house, my pets, and my mother, managing her care while performing duties that kept my clients happy.
In 2012, my husband lost his job, and we had to pay COBRA (paying both the employee and employer’s share) for our health insurance while we figured things out.
I had become rather adept at navigating long term care insurance, medical insurance and other bureaucratic systems on my mother’s behalf. And I had, at that point, placed Mom in a memory care facility. But I was not well-versed in financial instruments and was disappointed in the alternatives I had been offered in pursuit of ways to preserve my mother’s resources for her care. I investigated ways I could become better educated and possibly earn a salary with benefits.
The financial services company I employed for my household needs offered a program for business owners looking to make a change. I applied and they recruited me. They paid for my education and enabled me to attain securities and life insurance licenses. I studied hard and passed all the exams on the first shot. I was appointed and was expected to bring in new accounts right away.
During my first year, I was paid a salary with benefits, including health insurance for my husband and me. That was a big relief. And I was encouraged to go “out in the field,” to acquire new business. My appointments granted me some flexibility to see and care for my mother. But there were also a lot of demands on me to be in the office for meetings, paperwork and training sessions.
The trajectory of my mother’s illness often called upon me to drop everything and go wherever she landed, because she couldn’t speak for herself. My employers knew my situation, and in fact, found it a compelling reason to hire me. My story was a powerful “why” in talking to potential clients about planning, particularly for long term care.
The summer of 2014, my mother was hospitalized twice. In July, she had sepsis (a blood infection), which required her to be restrained and medicated. I really thought she was going to die then, but she recovered. After a challenging period of dealing with a bad rehab facility and getting her transferred back to her home with physical therapy provided there, she did better. But I was having to take a lot of time off to coordinate.
With her condition improving, I dared to consider spending more time focused on my profession. Then, in August, I got the call that Mom was bleeding profusely and was on her way back to the hospital.
My mother had a rare, undiagnosed disorder that produced too many red blood cells. Her body responded by rupturing her intestines to compensate. It was time for hospice.
And that was about the time I found myself weeping in the bathroom at my office. My employers were pressuring me, writing me up for poor job performance. My mother was dying and needed me to be with her. I didn’t know which way to turn.
Emerging from the sanctity of the ladies’ room with red-rimmed puffy eyes, I ran into my manager in the hallway, and he asked me what was wrong. I could barely get the words out.
He said there was a way to get me the relief I sought. He gave me the phone number of a benefits administration team, and they connected me to resources that enabled me to apply for family leave. I could take up to twelve weeks off without jeopardizing my position. And because I live in the state of New Jersey, I could also apply for benefits that would pay some compensation. I would have to fill out forms (corporate, federal and state) and get signed statements from two of my mother’s doctors certifying her need. The important thing was I COULD take time off to do what I needed to do for my mother and myself.
I ultimately left that job, but at least I had time to make an informed decision beforehand. I was able to weigh the pros and cons. And I left on good terms.
Since then, my life has changed a great deal, but the memory of that day in that restroom stays with me. I know that there are thousands of people, working outside the home and caregiving someone inside their home, faced with a lot of the same angst I faced. I want to shine a light on this issue, both for the employees who are suffering and the employers who rely upon them.
There are over 43.5 million people in the U.S. providing unpaid care to another person. With the ranks of the aging increasing by 10,000 per day, and the vast majority being unprepared for a long term care event, the need for adult children to intervene and provide care is going to skyrocket.
Why should employers care?
- The sheer number of people in need indicates that virtually everyone with a family will have some kind of caregiving responsibility at some time in their lives
- Finding qualified candidates to fill the open jobs is extremely challenging
- Retaining excellent employees is difficult in light of the number of opportunities being offered
- If you don’t provide a supportive atmosphere for caregiving employees, they will leave one way or another
- Employers have families, too. Without understanding the risks, they may succumb to the demands of caregiving their own aging loved ones
Why should employees care?
- Their lives are in danger: 50% of family caregivers of people with dementia die before their loved one
- Their physical and mental health are threatened
- Their careers are threatened: many caregivers lose their jobs because they never disclosed their situation to their employer and their performance was suffering. Many others leave without notice during a crisis
- Their futures are threatened: if they aren’t careful, they can easily spend everything their loved one had on care, and wind up dipping into their own resources, impoverishing themselves
- Their marriages are threatened
- Their children suffer, too
So, what can be done?
First thing, caregivers need to recognize that they are, in fact, caregivers. It may sound silly, but a lot of people in that situation think of themselves as just being “good kids.” It usually starts slowly, with “favors,” but can grow quickly when there’s a health crisis. So know this: if you are providing support to another adult, you ARE a caregiver.
Second, employers need to align with employee’s needs and develop a policy that
- Encourages employees to speak about their situations at home
- Provides support and resources to employees in caregiving situations
- Trains management to recognize and respond to the problem
- Enables applications for family leave
- Offers cross-training and the creation of teams so staff-members can fill in for each other
- Allows for remote work if at all possible so caregiving employees can spend more time at home
- Sponsor workshops and seminars for employees to obtain the knowledge they need to become legally-appointed and capable advocates for their loved ones
If you’re an employer who is curious about enacting the kinds of policies discussed here, there are resources available. And if you’re an employee (or an employer) who has aging loved ones, I encourage you to seek help with your questions. Please don’t wait for a crisis, or you might find yourself crying in the bathroom.