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Balancing Work and Caregiving

AARP's Amy Goyer, one of the 61 percent of caregivers age 50+ that also work, offers advice

Amy Goyer and father, Balancing Work and Caregiving

Beth Perkins Photography

En español | On a recent morning, I helped Dad and Mom get out of bed and assisted them with brushing their teeth and dressing. I fed their service dog, Jackson. I brought Mom the newspaper and cleaned her glasses, and I got Dad settled with music and coffee on the back porch. I administered medications for all three of them, fixed their breakfasts, cleaned up the kitchen, rescheduled Mom's doctor appointment because it conflicted with my paid job, sang and danced with Dad and reassured him repeatedly that everyone was OK and there was nothing he needed to be doing, and put something for dinner in the slow cooker. 

That was interspersed with work for my job as a writer and consultant: reading and writing emails, sending out tweets and Facebook posts, preparing for a radio interview later that day, participating in a conference call and researching an upcoming blog post. Just another crazy day in my life of juggling two jobs: caregiving and my paid work.

I've been a caregiver my entire adult life. First I helped support my grandparents. Then I helped with my mom, when she had a stroke at age 63, some 20 years ago, making frequent cross-country trips from Washington, D.C., to Arizona. But when Dad first showed signs of Alzheimer's disease in 2008, that wasn't enough. So I adapted my work, choosing jobs that let me telecommute, and began working from Arizona a week or two a month. Eventually that wasn't enough, and I moved into my parents' home.

Working caregivers like me are everywhere. Some of us are open at work about our caregiving roles, but others keep it to themselves. Those who don't disclose their caregiving situations may do so for personal reasons, but many keep quiet because they are concerned about repercussions at work. Working caregivers are in the position of keeping (or finding) work while meeting the constantly changing needs of the people we care for. We never know when a crisis is around the corner.

Sound familiar? Here are some ideas that will help you juggle the balancing act.

Tell the boss

While every job is unique, letting your employer know about your situation is usually a good idea. It helps him or her understand the challenges you are facing and see that you want to be a valued employee. When you speak with an HR representative or your manager, be honest — and realistic — about your options.

Change your work hours

If people you care for primarily need help in the mornings, perhaps you could work in the afternoons and evenings. Or if the people you care for mostly have medical appointments in the afternoon, perhaps you could work a split shift — mornings and evenings. You could also request a predictable hourly schedule.

Or you could ask for flexible hours. Some employers want employees to have a fixed schedule, but others are flexible as long as employees work a specified number of hours per day.

One day you may work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the next you may take your loved one to an appointment in the morning and work 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Some employers offer a one-week compressed schedule (work four longer days and take the fifth day off, for example) or a two-week compressed schedule (work nine longer days and get one day off).

If you can't work full time but want to keep doing your job, you might propose scaling back to a part-time position with your current employer or finding part-time employment with another company.

Another option you could propose is job-sharing: Keep your current job but share it with another person, splitting the work and the pay. Some employers cross-train employees so one can easily step in when another needs time off. Your employer may provide opportunities for a "phased retirement," in which you'd work part time for a period of time before full retirement. With these options, you'll want to make sure you adjust your budget if you'll have a reduced income.

Consider telecommuting

Some call it "remote work" or "telework," but telecommuting is an option that allows you to work from home or some other location, such as your loved ones' home or another office.

Some employers offer full-time telecommuting jobs. Others allow some telecommuting time every week, or short-term telecommuting during an emergency or acute caregiving time.

Caregivers often cite telecommuting as the most helpful flexible work option. It allows them to help the people they care for with personal care or transportation to doctor appointments and then get right to work wherever they are, rather than wasting time traveling to their work site or taking more time off.

Some companies will support telecommuting with computers and other equipment; others will require you to supply your own equipment.

If you're a long-distance caregiver and your company has a work site closer to your loved ones' location, you might also consider a permanent or temporary transfer.

Look into taking leave

Employers offer different options for taking time off. Be sure you understand your employer's policies. Do they offer time off specifically for caregiving?

Many caregivers devote their vacation time to caregiving. Some employers allow employees to use sick time for caring for sick family members; in fact, this is required or mandated in some states and jurisdictions.

Some companies provide paid or unpaid time off when an immediate family member dies. Find out more. Does the policy include your grandmother, aunt or uncle, partner or close friend? How much time will you be allowed? You may also have paid time off for personal use. Some companies allow employees to donate their unused vacation, sick or personal time to other employees who are experiencing a hardship and need paid time off.

If you need to take an extended period of time off work, your employer may offer several options. Most extended leave will be unpaid. Keep in mind that your job may be protected for a period of time but perhaps not indefinitely. Contact the U.S. Department of Labor or talk with your employer to find out if you are eligible for the Family, Medical and Leave Act, or military caregiving.

Have I missed opportunities and struggled with the unique challenges of being self-employed? Absolutely. Am I sometimes frustrated and overwhelmed? Yes.

But here's what sustains me: I know that my parents are more vulnerable than I am and that I'm doing the right thing. I made a conscious choice to care for them as they have cared for our family, so I've adapted my work and career goals.

People ask me how I do it; I wonder, how could I not do it? I wouldn't have it any other way. I succeed because I want to and because I believe so strongly in what I'm doing.

Editor's Note: As this story went to press, Amy Goyer's mother, Patricia, passed away. "I'm devastated at the loss of my beautiful mom," Goyer said. "It was an honor and a privilege to care for her as she cared for me."

Originally published November 2013

Amy Goyer is AARP's family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Connect with Amy on amygoyer.comFacebookTwitter, in AARP's Online Community and in the AARP Facebook Family Caregivers Group.

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