Balancing Work and Caregiving

by Richard O’Boyle
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Does this sound familiar: You are on a business trip and get a call from your mother. She tells you that she hasn’t been feeling well for a few weeks and needs to get to the doctor. Of course you can’t take her… you are meeting with an important client in a distant city. You hastily arrange for a neighbor to take her, but this one visit spirals upward to a series of tests and visits, that ultimately forces you to return from your trip early.

This one example is all too familiar to working caregivers. Even more extreme eldercare crises such as medical emergencies or the diagnosis of dementia can lead to intensive responsibilities when you are most preoccupied with advancing your career.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, about two out of three people actively caring for a loved one are employed, and more than half of those are employed full-time. Workers often come to work late, leave early, alter their schedules, make or receive phone calls related to caregiving during work hours, or miss work to deal with crises or take relatives to medical appointments.

In more extreme cases, some workers have to stop working altogether or reduce their workloads significantly to accommodate their evolving and increasing caregiving responsibilities. The National Alliance for Caregiving and MetLife estimate that U.S. businesses lose about $11.4 billion every year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and workday interruptions of working caregivers. Less conservative estimates push the total cost to $29 billion every year.

I recently spoke with John Paul Marosy, President of Massachusetts-based Bringing Eldercare Home, LLC and the author of “Elder Care: A Six Step Guide to Balancing Work and Family.” John shared with me some practical approaches to juggling the sometimes conflicting responsibilities inherent in work and caregiving.

O’Boyle: How important is it to establish a job description and list of responsibilities when you think you may have an eldercare/work balance issue?

Marosy: Being clear about your specific job responsibilities is crucial to creating a workable plan for elder care/work balance. If you and your supervisor are not clear about the tasks for which you are accountable, there is no clear basis for a discussion about such alternatives as part-time work, flexible hours, etc. If you don't have job description at all, we provide a format for creating one in “Elder Care: A Six Step Guide to Balancing Work and Family."

O’Boyle: How much does your supervisor really need to know about personal caregiving situation?

Marosy: You need to use good judgment regarding how much to share with your supervisor regarding your caregiving situation. The starting point is to be honest with yourself about the level of trust that exists between you and the person to whom you report. Ask yourself questions like these: “Do my supervisor and I treat each other with respect and politeness?” “Does my supervisor keep commitments he or she has made to me?” If there is a good level of trust, then you will feel more comfortable sharing more details. In a less trusting environment, it might be better to stick to the “rules of the game” at your place of work. That is: Know what your legal rights are and what benefits are offered by the employer and focus your discussion on these.

O’Boyle: What tactics can one use to gain greater flexibility in one's work schedule?

Marosy: A good starting point for gaining more flexibility at work is to take a look at how your work meshes with your co-workers, if you are in a situation where you work with a group. You can often negotiate a temporary arrangement where someone covers for your responsibilities some of the time, and you reciprocate. A good tactic is to suggest such arrangements on a trial basis, with a specific date on which everyone will look at whether or not the situation is working out from all points of view. Once you have a suggested change in mind, put it in writing and request a meeting with your supervisor to discuss the specifics.

O’Boyle: What are the key criteria for accessing the Family and Medical Leave Act?

Marosy: The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides certain rights for family caregivers. For example, it provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period for care of a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. The law applies to employers with 50 or more employees. The employee may take the leave intermittently or on a reduced schedule. This means that a family caregiver may take off time in small “chunks” of a few hours at a time, if that is what is needed. The employer must continue the employee’s health care insurance premiums on the same basis as prior to commencement of leave. And the employee must be able to return to the same or an equivalent position.

O’Boyle: What kinds of resources are available through large employers? Medium ones? Small ones?

Marosy: An increasing number of large employers offer a service called elder care consultation and referral (C&R), usually under a contract with a work/life balance firm. This service allows the employee who has a concern about an older relative to access the help of a skilled and knowledgeable elder care counselor by calling an 800 number or visiting an interactive website. The counselor has access to a database of thousands of elder care services and programs, as well as educational materials. The counselor helps the employee think through the options that make sense for his or her family situation, then sends a listing of resources in the older person’s area. Medium and large size firms also frequently offer an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) that can provide services similar to a C&R service. Employers of any size can offer flexible hours when needed (assuming someone is available to cover one’s job when one arrives late or leaves early).

Also, a growing number of employers offer long-term care insurance on a group basis, which can save the employee, and sometimes family members, a substantial amount of money compared to premium levels for individual policies. Another common, inexpensive offering by employers of all sizes is the “Lunch and Learn” seminar on elder care topics.

O’Boyle: What’s the single most important thing to keep in mind when one is faced with balancing elder care and work responsibilities?

Marosy: Most important is the realization that caregiving is another job. And, like any other job, you will need information, training, and support in order to succeed. If you adopt this point of view from the beginning, i.e., that you need not and should not “go it alone,” your prospects for successfully balancing the roles over time will be much better.


  - “The MetLife Study of Employer Costs for Caregiving,” National Alliance for Caregiving and MetLife, 1997
  - “Balancing Work and Caregiving,” AARP
  - “Work and Caregiving,” Area Agency on Aging PSA-2, Dayton, Ohio,
  - “Employment and Caregiving: Is There a Balance,” Ohio State University Extension Senior Series SS-119-97.

Related Articles:

  - Long-Distance Caregiving
  - Tips on… Successful Parentcaring
  - Transition Issues for the Elderly and Their Families
  - Caring for the Caregiver: Promoting Your Own Well-Being

Recommended Readings:

  - “Elder Care: A Six Step Guide to Balancing Work and Family” by John Paul Marosy, Bringing Elder Care Home Publishing, 2002.


Available from ElderCare Online™                2003 Prism Innovations, Inc.