Balancing Work While Caring for Aging Parents

Elder care is a costly struggle for employees and employers alike.

A MetLife study found that people who take on a caregiver role give up more than $650,000 in lifetime earning potential. And on the employer side, the same study estimated that American businesses see a $33 billion productivity loss each year because of employees' caregiving obligations. The numbers suggest there's clearly a business case for introducing benefits and support programs.

First step, talk to your boss. Fortunately or unfortunately, there's not the same stigma with elder care as often exists with child care. When it comes to kids, many managers are quick to assume you can just hire a babysitter or put your kids in day care. They're not as understanding about those challenges. But elder care is different. The solutions aren't as clear-cut, and the problems are often much more complicated.

As an employee, it's nearly impossible to keep this issue bottled up. It's inevitable that some of your time at work will have to be spent checking in on mom or dad, calling doctors, dealing with insurance companies, making difficult decisions and more.

It's smart to let your boss know that you're coping with this issue. He or she need not be privy to every detail; you don't want to come across as overwhelmed or unreliable. The goal is to reiterate your commitment to work, but also be clear that this is a personal priority and an obligation.

In some cases, you may learn that your boss is dealing -- or has dealt -- with the same thing. And you'll also get a sense of whether he or she is going to be supportive.

Research existing benefits. It's important to understand the benefits available to you. This includes what your company offers and what you might be entitled to under the law.

The Family Medical Leave Act requires large employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off with job protection when workers must care for a sick or injured parent. Some states have extended this coverage to include small businesses as well, and others have pending legislation. Sometimes taking limited time off, even unpaid, to get your elder care plans in order is the best option to allow you to focus on establishing the right protocol for your family.

Suggest new benefits. In the absence of elder care benefits, don't be shy about suggesting programs that will benefit you and your entire workplace. You might go to your HR department or to your manager and share some of the ways that other companies are supporting their employees. Respectfully ask that they consider exploring the possibilities of offering the same. Benefits are typically offered in direct response to employee need. Maybe the need never existed, but now you and some of your colleagues would truly benefit from the help.

Ask for flexible hours. The top benefit that employees say would make all the difference in the world is flexible hours. The ability to work a compressed work week -- longer shifts in fewer days -- or the option of working late some days in order to leave early on another -- enables employees to schedule doctor's appointments and other needs on a specific day and time each week. Flexible hours also enable employees to have some free time during business hours to call doctor's offices or insurance companies or other elder care providers that are impossible to reach off hours and on weekends.

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