How to Balance Work and Being a Caregiver to Your Elderly Loved One

Work-life balance is hard enough as it is. Add in being the dedicated caretaker for an elderly parent — which can be a full-time job in itself — and it feels all but impossible.

Responsibilities stack up both at work and at home, and with your parent, not to mention the emotional and mental strain you’re battling.

Those of us who have been through it know it’s not long before it feels like you’re drowning.

More than 60 percent of working caregivers suffer work-related difficulties requiring them to rearrange work schedules, cut back on hours or take unpaid leave to provide care, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. 

We think we can manage it all, but oftentimes that’s not realistic and it leads to serious burnout. Especially when you’re using up all your sick time and vacation days to shuttle a parent to doctor appointments or handle other caregiver tasks and you never actually get a chance to rest. Some days you’re going to need to stay home.

Some days you’re going to turn a work project in later than you’d like. Some days it’s going to take everything you have to get dressed and make a cup of coffee. And that’s okay. It just means you might need additional support to find balance.

Understanding this reality, in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into federal law to prevent people from losing their jobs due to medical conditions, either their own or that of an immediate family member.

It’s not perfect — it’s unpaid leave, for one — but it’s still important for anyone acting as a caregiver to an elderly loved one to understand what the law does guarantee.

How Much Time You May Be Able Take Away from Work

If you’ve been at your employer for more than 12 months, you’ve worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year, your employer has more than 50 employees, and you or a spouse, parent or child has a serious medical condition, then you’re covered.

The benefit? You can take up to 12 weeks of leave per year, which you can take intermittently (a few hours, a half-day, a day, a week, a month at a time) or all at once.

While the law is fairly flexible in its definition of child and parent (adoptive or foster is included, as is an adult that raised you like a parent), it does not cover grandparents, in-laws, siblings or adult children.

While it’s unpaid, FMLA does allow you to keep your employer-provided health insurance, uninterrupted, and prevents you from getting demoted or fired, which provides something we all need when under the stress of acting as caretaker for an aging parent: a sense of stability.

Beyond FMLA, some states have paid family leave programs, and individual employers may have their own policies that can help too, most notably disability insurance.

Since for many of us, unpaid leave on more than an intermittent basis isn’t a viable option, having even some portion of regular pay can make all the difference, which disability insurance provides. And it varies employer to employer, but sick and vacation time may sometimes be able to be wrapped into FMLA, so a portion of the leave is paid (and know that some employers require that you use what you have remaining of this time first).

Your company’s HR representative should be able to confidentially provide the specifics for your location and employer.

Talking to Your Boss About Your New Responsibilities

If you decide to take leave, it can be scary.

First, how do you tell your boss?

Honesty is the best policy — though that doesn’t mean you must get too specific or personal. If your boss knows that you’re being forthcoming, that you’re giving as much notice as you can, etc., the person is likely to make the whole thing easier.

You’re not hiding anything. You’re not doing anything wrong. You are in a corner and using a resource available to you. If anyone does make it difficult, that’s why the FMLA is there to have your back.

But remember to set boundaries: Your employer does not have a right to require that you check in or that you be available when using FMLA time. You can give updates if you desire, but make sure you’re only doing it on your terms and to the extent you’re comfortable.

Second, what are your responsibilities?

When you request leave, your employer is required to give you all the necessary forms and information. If you know in advance when you plan to leave, you should give your employer 30 days' notice. But the law was written understanding that, in these circumstances, there’s often no way for us to have that kind of warning — that’s part of what makes it all so challenging.

If you don’t have that kind of lead time, you are just required to give as much warning as possible. Your employer may (and has the right to) request a medical certification, but you’re not required to disclose abundant personal details. And as far as definitions go, when the law speaks of a “serious medical condition,” that generally means a condition requiring continuing treatment, or one that incapacitates or hospitalizes a person for three-plus days.

Being a dedicated caregiver can be an overwhelming task, whether it’s the car rides, housekeeping, meal prep, medication reminders or the emotional stress of watching a parent weaken and age. It’s easy to blame yourself for not doing enough when anyone filling this role has graciously taken on a monumental task. And that’s why there are resources like the FMLA to support you.

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