The pandemic has shone a light on the care industry and the NHS, whilst at the same time unpaid caring done within families continues to go under the radar. This is despite those pressures on families increasing at the same time as pressure on the NHS and social care increases.
Unpaid care is often picked up by the adult children of elderly parents, many of those carers are still in work. Some of them, whilst looking after elderly parents, also have their own dependent children at home, finding themselves sandwiched between the needs of their parents and their children.
This was where my then husband and I found ourselves, our eldest was 4 when we lost my ex-husband’s dad, my youngest was just 2. This carers week, I’m telling my story to help shine a light on the reality of so many.
As a brief context, my ex-husband’s mum lost her battle with cancer when my eldest was just 3 weeks old, she had battled hard for 4 years. Before she died she told us she thought Dad had dementia but it took over a year to get a diagnosis and during that time he was already deteriorating.
Caring for a parent changes your relationship with them, particularly with dementia as you’re losing the person you know, grieving for someone who is physically still here. There is the practical side, hospital visits, shopping, cooking dinner. Visits stop being about popping in for a cuppa and a laugh whilst the grandkids get spoilt. Visits became about piecing together the evidence to establish whether he was eating, drinking, taking medication or even going to bed at night. Then there are the SOS calls, the falls and the discovery that someone has taken his money.
We asked for help as we knew he couldn’t cope at home, but the reality is help isn’t really out there. Social services' response was for one of us to give up work, an option not available to us. A care home wasn’t even an option until he was so ill he was hospitalized, even then only for the final 6 months.
All of this happens whilst trying to keep not only my work, but my career. Work life balance takes on a whole new meaning when you’re racing to make it to the hospital for visiting time and evenings and weekends become about caring, balancing with the children’s needs. Time off is often needed to deal with pre-planned hospital or doctor appointments, there can be lots of them and then there are the emergencies. The sleepless nights, both from dealing with the practicalities of an emergency and the stress. The emotion involved in trying to do the best for everyone, the guilt that whatever you do is not enough, and then the guilt that your kids aren’t getting enough of your time and are being exposed to harsh realities far too young.
Life changed the moment my then husband’s mum was rushed into hospital and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I still remember my boss saying to me, not long after mum was diagnosed with cancer “you don’t stay late any more, you’re always walking out the door on time”. I didn’t stay very long with that boss but this has stayed with me. I remember that time, having to rush out of work to get home in time for the limited visiting hours at the hospital, not quite knowing what news we’d get each time we arrived. I still wanted to be working, my work mattered to me and I wanted to go back to being that young person who just had her career to focus on. I learnt then that I needed to make sure I did a good job with a deadline, overall it made me more productive.
The sandwich generation, carers of adults and parents are all part of the workforce, circumstances change often overnight. A little support in the workplace goes a long way. The attitude of the Manager makes a huge impact on whether the outcome for work is positive or negative. Carers and parents are an increasing part of the workforce, support can come in the form of flexible work, a bit of planning to make sure everyone gets what they need. Simply knowing you’re supported can make a huge difference to the mental load an individual is carrying and lightening the mental load alone will make it easier to keep going. Employee Assistance Programmes can be beneficial to help deal with the mental health effects of caring. Open communication is essential, I know my life was much easier when I had Managers who were willing to listen and showed some understanding. It’s not about being a counselor, just about knowing what your employee is going through and making plans to help manage the situation.
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