Women Face Extreme Multitasking When Balancing Caregiving and Career

By Levine, Carol | Aging Today, March/April 2011 | Go to article overview

Women Face Extreme Multitasking When Balancing Caregiving and Career


Levine, Carol, Aging Today


In Anna Quindlen's novel One True Thing, Ellen Gulden quits her job as a reporter at a New York magazine to take care of her dying mother. Her boss warns her that this is a bad career move. "Not to be crass," he says, "but a sick mother gets you three weeks off and a nice flower arrangement from the staff." This being fiction, however, Ellen then becomes a better person, is accused of (but not indicted for) giving her motiier a fatal dose of morphine, enrolls in medical school and becomes a psychiatrist.

Few caregivers experience their role this way. Yet the work-versus-caregiving dilemma is common. According to die 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving/ AARP survey, 57% of respondents who were caregivers in the preceding 12 months were currendy employed. Even though more men are becoming caregivers for dieir family members, women still make up the majority of the country's estimated 52 irfilhon caregivers, especially when it comes to hands-on care and emotional support.

BATTLING THE DOUBLE STANDARD

In balancing work and caregiving, women face special challenges. The usually unstated assumption is diat men "need" dieir jobs, while women work for other less important reasons than supporting themselves or a family. Very few men are asked if they are still working when a friend hears about a parent's illness. Yet during the 17 years I cared for my late husband while maintaining a full-time job, I heard mis all the time. Moreover, many women accept this double standard.

Unlike Gulden, who was in her 20s, most women face this decision much later iri life. They may still be caring for children or teenagers and managing a household. Some are caring for grandchildren. They may have worked hard to achieve professional success. They may still have personal goals, such as travel, study, or turning an avocation into a second career. The serious illness of a parent or spouse threatens to derail everything and adds unknown and often unknowable challenges to their lives.

Most caregivers in their 40s and older are not leaving the workforce but struggling to keep up with demanding dual responsibilities. While the strains can be severe, employed caregivers generally report higher levels of satisfaction and well-being than unemployed caregivers. Ironically, many caregivers see work as a form of respite.

Leaving a job, reducing working hours or making some other accommodation for caregiving can have both short- and long-term consequences. The initial impulse when a parent has a stroke or a serious fall is to rush to help. And while putting everything else on hold is appropriate in an emergency, it is not a long-term solution. Women who live at a distance from their ill parent are caught wanting to be in two places at once and feeling guilty wherever they are.

Taking time to assess options, preferably in family discussions, is important to establish who can take on which tasks, how to divide financial responsibilities and how to communicate about treatment or other choices.

LONG-TERM FINANCIAL IMPACT

For the long term, leaving a job means not only the loss of income but also the loss of benefits. The most urgent is health insurance, but contributions to a retirement plan and Social Security credits also count. These losses may not be significant if caregiving lasts a few months, for example, while a parent is in hospice. But when it's a condition like Alzheimer's disease, the financial impact can be serious. Moreover, many caregivers find it hard to reenter the workforce.

While most women see their caregiving decisions as intensely personal, there are economic implications for employers whose workers may become distracted and less productive. Some caregivers face discrimination in the workplace. In 2007 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines on discrimination against caregivers, particularly singling out gender discrimination; there are local laws too.

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Women Face Extreme Multitasking When Balancing Caregiving and Career
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