Eldercare often starts with a sudden, unexpected event, such as a fall. So we leap in to handle the crisis, which we can feel very unprepared for. Once started these events often rapidly increase in frequency and need us to respond. This burden, particularly with eldercare, can slip into our lives, unquestioned, unexamined until suddenly it’s too much, we’re burnt out and, at best, we turn down career advancing opportunities, or even resign altogether.
Over our lifetimes, most of us will need to take primary or secondary responsibility for the care of a dependent relative or friend. However, women still account for the great majority of carers. Whilst 35% of all adults, and 44% per cent of working adults, have caring responsibilities, the research found that the caring role is not spread equally. Women account for 85% of sole carers for children and 65% of sole carers for older adults according to research from Ipsos/BITC.
In addition, about 8% of carers (about 1.25 million in the UK) identify themselves as ‘sandwich carers’, that is, caring for both an older relative as well as raising a family or caring for grandchildren. There can be a perfect storm for women at an age when they have responsibility for teenage kids, increasing eldercare responsibility and possibly perimenopausal symptoms, all at a time when their career should be flourishing. No wonder women caught in this are exhausted!
For many, this caring has to fit in around our busy day jobs. If organisations are to achieve any sort of gender equity in the coming years, the demands of elder and sandwich care need as much focus as childcare has received to date.
There has been plenty written about the potential derailing of women’s careers as they become parents, but little or nothing about the impact of eldercare on those same careers.
The research evidence from McKinsey, Bloomberg and many more, clearly shows the value women bring to organisations that manage to keep and support them to reach management and senior leadership levels. For more than 20 years ECC has worked with many organisations helping them capitalise on their wealth of women talent by supporting parents and those who manage them to make adjustments so that both families and careers can thrive alongside each other. The demands on parents vary considerably according to the situation. Having a neurodiverse or otherwise differently abled child or being a single or sole parent can magnify these pressures and more support may be necessary. So it is with elder care, where some conditions such as dementia make even greater demands on the carer.
On the positive side, the working environment is changing. The evolution of Flexible Working away from “part time” or “women only” and into the mainstream, is a step forward for all genders. The case for properly funded parental leave for both parents is gaining momentum. Many leading organisations have already equalised parental leave and pay for all parents. Talking about childcare and parenting is getting accepted more and more as part of organisational life.
Yet, is the same true for those looking after elderly friends and family members?
Eldercare is a somewhat taboo subject – as we’re often aging ourselves at this stage and are reluctant to draw further attention to this and risk discrimination. There have been some recent laws proposed in the UK to support those with care responsibilities which are likely to take effect in 2024. Bearing in mind our aging population and extended life expectancy, this situation is well and truly here to stay. NHS England tells us that it takes two years of care before we identify as a carer.
Working can be a real respite from the toll and distress of eldercare, part of our identity is often associated with our jobs. So keeping our careers on track, brings us psychological benefits too, as well as precious income. The link between eldercare work and mental health is more thoroughly explored in this article from the BPS.
Even if we’re fortunate enough to have created a good level of autonomy and work in a supportive team, the multiple demands unconsciously shouldered by women causes us to take a long hard look at our lives. Anxiety and insomnia which can accompany menopause are further amplified by the distress of watching a loved one steadily decline.
The sharp clarity of our own mortality brings the gift of needing to make the most of our remaining time working and living. We often want to make more of a difference. The quality of the time we spend with our loved ones becomes more important. Our sense of purpose for working comes right into the foreground, seeking meaning and satisfaction from what we do, even simple things like enjoying being with colleagues and having some financial support can be enough.
Just at the point when many of us could progress to the top of organisations and make more of a difference, we’re choosing not to. Leading organisations are increasingly aware of their overlooked talent, but many are not yet deliberately and proactively investing in, and developing, their older women.
So, what should the best organisations do to retain women caught in this situation?
- Senior and influential leaders need to talk openly about their eldercare responsibilities. Admitting you are an elder carer, can be harder as we seek to avoid being stigmatised, so people may be using holiday or unpaid leave and other flexibility to cover up. Visible senior players speaking about their responsibilities and how they are managing, will help individuals at all levels.
- Provide a forum, such as an Employee Resource Group (ERG) to connect elder and sandwich carers so that people can be open about the challenges and support each other and enhance their visibility within the organisation.
- Help your women explore their need for meaning and purpose throughout their careers and especially as they hit their 50s. There can be assumptions that a demanding senior job is enough, however for many of us that is not the case.
- Work can be a real respite and restore our sense of self. Help managers communicate their compassion and understanding so your carers feel supported and appreciated. They need to spot any signs of burn out early and step in to offer help.
- Build strong connections with caregiving charities and networking groups – see below.
And what should we do for ourselves so that all these demands can be successfully managed?
- Identify clearly what you like about your role, the special skills and strengths you bring so that you can play to your strengths and get more pleasure from your work.
- Understand your purpose, talk about it and explore creatively how to bring more of that to the work you do, or could do within the organisation.
- Set inspiring goals for yourself so that you can look ahead with excitement and optimism.
- Take care of yourself – you need to be fit and well – and whilst it might be hard to squeeze in exercise and eating well, it’s even more vital to maintain your well-being.
- Remember that you have the right to ask for time off to deal with emergencies, hospital visits and the like.
- If you’re not sleeping or your anxiety is increasing, seek professional help as early as possible.
- Share with colleagues and stakeholders what you are juggling and how it’s affecting you. Reinforce to those you manage that although it can be hard, there are things you can do so you don’t have to give up (or cut down) important aspects of your life, such as work.
- Normalise your feelings by sharing them with other caregivers in a similar position. It’s very common to experience a mix of strong emotions, such as anger, guilt, disgust and terror. Resist feeling ashamed and instead see them as perfectly understandable (or rational) emotions.
- Anticipate the road ahead. Make sure the care giving is fairly shared and you are making choices which feel equitable. We must get better at talking to each other about what’s ahead. Atul Gwande in his seminal book ‘Being Mortal’ robustly explains why and how to have these conversations, as soon as we can.
- Build a strong support network at home too, with other care givers and organisations that support us.
Employers, policy makers and all of us working in organisations need to embrace caring as part of our working lives, offering curiosity and compassion as we deepen our learning about the demands our colleagues are silently shouldering.
General Support for Carers:
Carers UK: http://www.carersonline.org.uk Advice, information and campaigning for carers.
Princess Royal Trust for Carers – The national network of over 113 Carers Centres provide information, support and practical help to carers.
Crossroads Caring for Carers – National network of Crossroads Schemes give carers time to be themselves and have a break from their caring responsibilities. Trained carer support workers provide practical help usually in the home.
Carerwatch – Campaign group run by carers to highlight the underfunding of the care system.
Carers Direct – Free, confidential information and advice for carers. Call Carers Direct on 0808 802 0202.
Caring for Older People:
Counsel and Care
Independent Age helps older people on low incomes to live with dignity and peace of mind
The Relatives & Residents Association exists for older people needing, or living in, residential care and the families and friends left behind.
Action on Elder Abuse – AEA work to protect, and prevent the abuse of, vulnerable older adults.