Redefining Success–Caregiving: What Does it Mean to be a “Good” Caregiver of an Aging Parent?
Adjusting your personal definition of success to support your “fit” is critical. In addition to money, prestige, and advancement, caregiving is one of the aspects of success that you may need to redefine. What does it mean to be a “good” caregiver–father, mother, or adult child of an aging parent—in the context of your desired work+life fit. That definition will be different for everyone.
Last week’s blog posting examined the reasons why work+life is an “everyone” issue. Both men and women experience numerous work+life fit transitions—big and small–over the course of their work and life. One of the most significant transitions comes with undertaking the care of an aging parent. With the diagnosis of my mother’s cancer three weeks ago, I joined the ranks of adult children responsible for the care of a parent facing the question, “What does it mean to be a ‘good’ eldercare giver?”
Since entering the work+life field in 1994, I’ve tried to recognize and honor all types of work+life challenges, even if I hadn’t experienced them myself. Of course, it’s one thing to understand a challenge intellectually, and another thing to actually face it. After having both of my children, I had to adjust my own work+life fit, and it gave me a deeper understanding of what parents face. Now, I’m transitioning from working mother to working mother/ eldercare giver, and it’s caused me to rethink this particular challenge as well.
Eldercare responsibilities are as common as those related to child care, and may soon surpass them as the population ages
Everyone knows that eldercare is a work+life fit challenge millions of individuals face every year, but you may not realize just how common. Here are some interesting statistics that compare the number of employees dealing with elder care to the number dealing with child care. The numbers are equal, yet eldercare doesn’t seem to get the same attention in the broader cultural conversation about work+life.
(Special thanks to Work and Family Connection for this data):
Number of working mothers and fathers caring for children:
- The total number of U.S. workers with children under 6 is 21,630, 000. This is around 16% of the 136 million people in the labor force.
- Forty percent of the female workforce (around 26 million) live with their own children under the age of 18.
- Thirty six percent of the male workforce (around 27 million) live with their own children under the age of 18.
Number of adults caring for an aging relative:
- National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Survey estimates there are 44.4 million caregivers who provide unpaid care to another adult. Almost six in ten (59%), or 26,196,000, of them either work or have worked while providing care.
And, it’s important to remember that eldercare is an “equal opportunity” work+life challenge, affecting men almost as often as women:
- Almost four in ten caregivers are men, and 60% of them are working full-time.
- Both male and female children of aging parents make changes at work in order to accommodate caregiving responsibilities. Both have modified their schedules (men 54%, women 56%). Both have come in late and/or left early (men 78%, women 84%) and also altered their work-related travel (men 38%, women 27%).
We must also keep in mind that the number of eldercare givers will increase proportionally with the aging of the population.
- The number of Americans over 65 will increase from 34 million in 1995 to 62 million by 2025 (an 82% increase).
At that rate, by 2025, twice as many working adults will be caring for aging parents as will be caring for children under the age of six.Experience and Expectations
There are no common guidelines or milestones against which to plan
I’ve also been stuck by the differences in my expectations about caring for my mother, versus those about caring for my children. Both my pregnancies where normal which gave my husband and I nine months to plan. With my mother, it all happened in one phone call, “I have cancer.” No time to prepare. I imagine this is a common eldercare scenario.
Unlike raising children, with eldercare there are no general guidelines to help gauge your future responsibilities, no set milestones to help manage your expectations. At least with kids you know, “Okay, when they’re two, they will be potty training. At four, they’ll be in preschool…” But each adult requiring care is completely unique. Each illness is unique, as is each family support structure. But if my experience mirrors that of other caregivers, my expectations will end up being very different from my actual experience. Most participants in the National Alliance for Caregiving/AARP Study underestimated the length of time they would provide care:
- Only 46% expected to be caregivers longer than two years, but in fact, the average length of time spent on caregiving was about eight years, with approximately one third of respondents providing care for 10 years or more.
Which brings us back to the original question, “What does it mean to be a “good” caregiver of an aging parent?” To practice what I preach, I will need to adjust my “fit” given my new realities, and then redefine success so I feel good about the care I am providing. I’m only beginning to come up with answers, but here’s where I am so far:It’s Not “All or Nothing”
My initial reaction was naturally “I have to give 100% to my mother.” Thankfully, I know the answer isn’t “all or nothing.” I needed to step back and asked myself, “What small changes in my “fit” can I make to meet my needs (including those of my kids and husband), the needs of my mother, and the needs of my job?”
Right now, my mother wants to have her life stay as normal as possible. Although we all live relatively close by, having my sisters and me around 100% is not normal for her. What she needs is to stay connected (mostly by phone) and have someone accompany her to major doctor visits. That will most likely change when she starts treatment, but that’s where she is now. I am easily able to accomplish that, in coordination with my sisters, with weekend visits and an occasional visit during the week. All very manageable at this point.
- I must make sure I continue to find time to exercise, meditate, eat well, and sleep so I have the energy to support my mother. As my grandmother always said, you can’t draw water from an empty well! I have to replenish the well, and do that without guilt. Even if it means other things have to go, because another thing I’ve noticed is that providing care takes as much energy—emotional and physical—as time.
- I will give up all volunteer-related activities for the foreseeable future, without any guilt.
- I will take people up on their generous offers to help with my kids, make meals, etc. without guilt.
Changing “How,” “When” and “Where” I Work
I love what I do. It gives me energy, so I have more to give my mom. Plus, it’s been a welcome distraction. Aside from public speaking and meeting with clients, I can do much of what I do anywhere, anytime.I’ve just upgraded some of my technology so that I can access my desktop remotely from my laptop anywhere. Although it hasn’t been necessary so far, I can rearrange my schedule if I have to visit my mother during the week, and I will work on weekends when I need to.
Although I always have five or six new and exciting projects waiting in the wings, those are all on hold. Right now I’m continuing the work I’ve always done, but will consider each new opportunity, carefully, given how my realities look at the time.
Being Ready to Change My “Fit” and Definition of Success as My Realities Change
Because there are no guidelines or standard milestones to help chart this experience as a caregiver for my mother, it’s one day at a time. All I can do is be ready to make adjustments to my fit, and my definition of success as a caregiver, to suit circumstances as they change. And I’m sure they will.
Thank you to everyone who has offered to keep my mother in your thoughts. I will keep you posted on our progress. And please send your own eldercare stories and experiences. I would love to hear them. We need to make eldercare part of the broader work+life “fit” conversation, because it is an “everyone” issue.
Watch Out Guys! Here come the “Daddy Wars!”
Just when you thought it was safe to go outside! Now that the “Mommy Wars” have been exposed as a baseless myth, the “Daddy Wars” are starting. Let’s save ourselves a lot of aggravation right now. Recognize, that there countless ways for fathers to “fit” work into their lives just like there are for mothers. The focus should be on strategies for everyone to find that “fit” based on the own unique realities. What’s next: “Retiree Wars–The battle between those who retire fully, and those who work during retirement?” When will we figure this out?!