My Eldercare VICTORY!–Mom 1, Cancer 0: Why “Exceptional Caregiving” Will Transform the Work-Life Balance Debate

Special Note: Scroll down to the end for my Holiday Work+Life “Fit” Tip #1—Finding Time and Making It Happen!

Work+life “fit” means strategically managing the boundary between your work and life in response to personal and professional transitions. It’s difficult to plan when a transition occurs, but it pays to consider what your fit might look like when it does. Some work+life fit transitions will be small like getting to the gym periodically, finding some time for your friends or a date, etc; therefore, your fit will require a minor adjustment. But, some of those transitions will be big, and overwhelming. This was my experience with eldercare.

By thinking about which of the countless combinations of work and life along the entire work+life fit continuum might offer a solution, you will be prepared. You won’t be blind-sided as I was back in February when I got the call, “Mom has cancer.” Why was I so unprepared? I used my experience managing my fit with two young children as a roadmap, not understanding how different, and in some ways more difficult, eldercare would be.

In March, I first blogged about my mother’s diagnosis with Stage 4 lung cancer. At the time I was reeling from the seemingly overnight transformation of my work+life reality from well-managed to unrecognizable. Today, after nine grueling months of radiation and chemotherapy, I am very happy to report that my mother just received the news that her cancer is in remission! For now, she can live her life and those who love her can take a breath knowing she’s not suffering. We will have much to be thankful for at Thanksgiving.

But I now intimately understand why as the population ages over the next 20 years, eldercare will force organizations and individuals that may have ignored the issue to embrace work+life management strategies:
• Because it affects both men and women alike,
• Because there will be many more elders to care for than there are non-working caregivers, and
• Because it’s a more unpredictable and complex type of care to provide.
For these reasons, I believe eldercare will take a more prominent, if not primary, position in the work/life balance debate.

Two industry colleagues whom I admire, Kathy Lynch of The Center on Aging & Work and Linda Roundtree of Roundtree Consulting, recently co-wrote a paper entitled, Exceptional Caregiving. It outlines clearly how the “exceptional care” of another adult or special needs child is so different, and often more difficult, than the care of a healthy child. Below is a comparison from Exceptional Caregiving of the unique characteristics of “exceptional care” versus child care. It is easy to see why, as the level of exceptional care rises, workplace flexibility will become an even more critical business and career management strategy:

Typical Child Care

• Constant care that diminishes over the years

• Extraordinary input of time and energy

• Easier as time goes by

• Few interruptions are emergency-driven

• Child grows increasingly independent

• Requires some caregiver and family lifestyle adjustments

• Challenges and successes are easily shared in casual conversations with friends and colleagues

• Caregiving creates heightened exposure to the satisfaction and joy of celebrating lifetime achievements

Exceptional Care

• Constant care that escalates over the years

• Extraordinary input of time and energy

• Harder as time goes by

• Many interruptions are emergency-driven

• Individual grows increasingly dependent, or never develops independence

• Requires numerous caregiver and family lifestyle adjustments

• Challenges are rarely shared in casual conversation except with the closest of friends and colleagues; successes are fewer and farther between

• Caregiving creates heightened exposure to illness, hospitalization and even death

Even if you haven’t experienced the reality of “exceptional care” yourself, reading their article will help you see why care of an adult or special needs child must be given equal attention and consideration by not only policy-makers and leaders but also by individuals.

Yet another reason we need to broaden the work+life debate beyond a primary focus on the challenges of parenthood and work (which is indeed life transforming), because we still don’t hear much about eldercare. This is unfortunate, because the two responsibilities often occur in tandem. In fact, in April, I wrote about my observation that for many moms with young children who chose to leave the workforce it was an eldercare challenge (not the children) that was the final straw.

You can’t plan when you receive the call, “Mom’s got cancer.” But trust me that it pays to give advanced thought to how you will manage your work+life fit when you do. I know as a most grateful, and wiser daughter, that I will plan from now on. And hopefully I won’t have to test that plan for a long, long time.

Work+Life “Fit” Holiday Tip #1—Finding Time and Making It Happen: Mark important days you want to take off over the holidays on your calendar now, whether it’s for shopping, traveling to see your family, or attending your child’s holiday pageant.
If your plan involves leaving work early on certain days, give yourself a one-hour cushion of time. That way you are less likely to get so tied up with last minute “to dos,” and reach your destination in a stress-free, festive mood.

If your plan involves an entire day or days off, start swapping coverage with colleagues who may want to be out on different days. I’ve seen a number of situations where someone who would rather take time off around another holiday (e.g. July 4th) willingly cover time now.

If you work for yourself, start planning your work now so that on the days off there’s nothing that requires attention beyond monitoring for any unforeseen emergencies. In fact, give yourself a “day” of cushion to wrap up as many of those unforeseen emergencies before your holiday.

Check in next week for my Work+Life Fit Holiday Tip #2—Don’t Let Technology Be the Grinch that Stole Christmas!


7 thoughts on “My Eldercare VICTORY!–Mom 1, Cancer 0: Why “Exceptional Caregiving” Will Transform the Work-Life Balance Debate

  1. Thank you Cali for sharing your personal story and tips for other caregivers!

    While Exceptional Caregiving may be a difficult topic to talk about, the reality is – it’s an experience common to many employees everyday.

    As technology and innovation improve healthcare options for all of us – more and more of us will live longer. More of us will experience and survive cancer. And more of our children will survive and live through a variety of special needs.

    As Rosalynn Carter so wonderfully put it – we are all either receiving care or giving care – if not now someday!

    The good news is that leading employers around the country are paying attention and developing programs to support the needs of working caregivers. If your employer is not, feel free to send them a pdf of this Briefing – perhaps it can start the conversation.

  2. Thanks for such an uplifting message at this time of Thanksgiving. As one who has provided “exceptional caregiving” for two family members, I can attest to the requirement of “work-life fit” as a necessary strategy for any care giver.

    While it may be tough at times, the rewards to the care giver are a lifetime of positive memories and an opportunity to give back to someone who may have provided you with child care. Another benefit of “exceptional caregiving” is the opportunity to demonstrate family values to our children who will be observing how we take care of our elderly and that sets the standard of expectation for how they should take care of us when we are at that end of life transition.

    If you are facing expectional care needs for family members, remember the “Family Leave Act” along with an existing work-life fit plan are the resourses you can harness in developing the care plan that is best for your situation.

    Thanks again Cali, for sharing your life experience in this forum and to all, have a great Thanksgiving.

  3. Cali–just catching up on Thanksgiving reading and saw your post. I’m glad to hear your mom’s cancer is in remission. I lost my dad to lung cancer five years ago. I was thankful that we had two good years with him before he went.

  4. So very sorry to hear that your mom’s cancer returned. I empathize with you on many levels. I went through this experience with my own mother 10 years ago, while juggling the needs of a 5 year old, husband, home, and job. I also provided eldercare last year for a beloved great uncle who had no children, and who was the last surviving sibling in his family. I had 24 hours to put makeshift plans in place for my clients, my family and two dogs, then leave home for 6 weeks to attend to my uncle’s needs in another state. I am lucky because I work from home. Still, it has given me a lot to ponder, because I realize I may be called on by other elderly relatives in my small family who may have few, if any other relatives available to help in their time of need. I confess it is a thought that sometimes keeps me awake at night. Many of us are unprepared to step in and support an ailing parent. How many of us are prepared or already planning to have conversations about power of attorney, and “what to do if…?” with uncles, aunts, step-parents and other elders (other than our parents) in our midst that we may need to support? I wasn’t.

    There is much to sort through on how to create the best work-life fit when eldercare is introduced into the mix. You provide a great service by raising awareness about this issue. You are on the front lines of this benchmark life experience, but you are not alone. Please know that the thoughts and prayers of more people than you know go with you, your mother, and all your family.

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