How Caring for Aging Parents Affects a Career

Having kids isn't the only family consideration that affects work/life balance.
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Having chosen the child-free life, I didn’t expect that caring for loved ones would play any significant role in my career path. But I didn’t factor in my mom and dad. Like many in my generation, I never fully considered the potential need to care for my aging parents.

Foregoing children was a complicated, difficult decision for me. It was riddled with fears about my parenting abilities, an irrational terror of labor pains, and the reality that I simply never felt ready. But once the decision was behind me, I enjoyed my marriage and career largely unfettered, supportive of my colleagues with kids, yet never imagining that I’d experience anything like the comings and goings of maternity leave that presented them with so many challenges. That is, until my parents began to age.

My father’s health was the first to go. Congestive heart failure made heart attacks an almost annual event. I found myself bolting out of meetings and onto flights from San Francisco to Boston in response to my mother’s hysterical, long-distance calls saying, “This is it!” Over 10 years of these 911 alerts, during which my dad also underwent a number of complex surgeries, I became that colleague who cries wolf. Though my co-workers were always supportive, I saw slight eye-rolls each time I had to try to do my job from 3,000 miles away because my dad had been hospitalized and was on his deathbed. Again.

Next, my wonderful, imperfect parents began escalating minor logistical messes into major crises. They had a nasty fight with a company they’d hired to paint their kitchen cabinets. They got embroiled in a permitting problem with the city they were moving to. When my father caused a scene over whether lunch menu prices at a local pizza parlor were still valid after 3 p.m. and was told never to return, my mother became more concerned than ever that he’d definitively lost it.

Each incident sparked an endless round of phone calls. I’d shut the door to my office and try to talk my mom off one ledge or another. In extreme cases, I’d find myself on yet another very expensive last-minute flight. To minimize the impact on my colleagues I always did my best to work from my parents’ home. Unfortunately, many of these episodes occurred during the days of dial-up, when the notion of working remotely simply didn’t compute the way it does today. One evening I broke down sobbing as I banged on my eight-pound laptop in the confines of my mother’s quilting studio. The three-megabyte file I needed to deliver to a client that evening repeatedly brought my Internet to its knees. It took no less than 23 dial-up attempts and four hours to get the file through, well after the deadline had passed.

Fast-forward 10 years, to 2008. By then I was the co-founder of a successful technology marketing firm, and was fortunate to have a supportive business partner. As an added bonus, high-speed internet had arrived, and I had a fully-functioning office installed permanently in my parents’ home. Sadly though, my mom, who had been my father’s primary caregiver, was now terminally ill herself. With little warning, my two brothers and I had to scramble to find a caregiving solution that would work for the entire family.

While managing two terminally ill parents, I did my best to juggle their needs with my company’s. On multiple occasions I drove from Boston to New Jersey for a single dinner meeting just to reassure a client that I was “on top of things.” Perhaps most frustrating was that the professional caregivers we’d hired created a host of new issues to deal with, from negligence to flagrant stealing. My attention was constantly torn between the office and my parents’ home.

When I returned home after a two-week hiatus following my mother’s death—during which I’d organized the funeral, rearranged the house for my father and found five minutes to grieve—my colleagues welcomed me with cards, gifts, condolences and a new job description that left me with nothing challenging to do. My business partner had delegated my most interesting work to our three top performing women, all under the age of 30 and without attachments. What they couldn’t handle, he took on himself. There I was, 42 years old, the co-founder and COO of the company and I felt irrelevant. The slow creep of my parents’ aging into my career, which had begun with my father’s congestive heart failure a decade earlier, had now risen to a big-boom finale that took an immeasurable toll.

While it was a relief to have tedious responsibilities off my plate, I wanted the challenging ones back. But I knew the chances were slim given that I still had one parent who was terminally ill. Simply put, my colleagues saw me as a ticking time bomb. All hell would break loose when my father died. On top of a funeral to organize, there’d be a house to empty and sell, and an estate to close out, all of which would take far more than two weeks.

I did my best to deal with the shock of my irrelevancy, to reinvent myself within the company and redefine my role as COO. At every possible chance I threw myself at our New York office and its range of opportunities, pairing visits I’d arranged there with trips to check on my dad. But just as my new role started to slowly take shape, the bomb went off: just a year after my mom’s death, my dad passed away. The long stint of necessary time off kicked in.

It was much harder this time to stay connected. Not only did I need to fully grieve my parents, I was totally burned out. What’s more, the experience of losing my parents, and the way in which it happened, changed me. I became a kinder, gentler, softer woman. My appreciation for life’s brevity and the value of time with friends and family had grown intensely. Upon returning to the office I found that my responsibilities had once more been redistributed. This time, though, I had no energy to reinvent myself again—at least not under the watch of my long-time colleagues. It was clear. I needed to move on.

Two years later, by 2011, my carefully planned exit strategy from the company I had co-founded was underway. When my business partner and I met to develop the plan, he reflected, "You must know you’ve never been the same since your parents died.” At first the words stung, but I realized he was right. I’m not the same person. Initially I felt like a failure. Could I have prevented burning out and becoming irrelevant? Intriguingly—and maddeningly—my brother’s colleagues saw him as a hero. "What a great guy,” they said. “He’s so good to his parents." His support of Mom and Dad endeared him to both his female and male counterparts. Not so in my case. Although close friends respected and admired me, to the majority of my colleagues I was the once-ambitious, child-free, kick-ass executive leader who had gone soft.

This, I thought, is what a woman who returns from maternity leave goes through—coming back to a job that had shifted, and to perceptions that motherhood had changed her in ways that made her a less valuable member of the team. But change is not a less-than equation.

While most women plan to some extent for how they’ll juggle work and motherhood, and have the benefit of some sort of leave, few, if any, lay the groundwork at home or in the workplace for aging parent care.

Today’s reality is that both burdens continue to fall primarily on women’s shoulders. While a heartening Pew Research Center study found that men represent as many as 45 percent of all family caregivers, this still leaves women in the majority of caregiving roles. And if the perception is, as it was in my case, that men caring for family are heroes, while women are less reliable, we have a long road ahead before the imbalanced view of men and women in the workplace as it relates to “family leave” will shift.

As I’ve learned, being a primary caregiver to any loved one, young or old, absolutely and without question deeply affects your career. And while some of us will become parents and others won’t, we are all daughters and sons.

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Rosanna Fay is the author of Careless Caregivers: True Eldercare Stories. She is a former marketing executive.

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