Between a Rock and a Wheelchair

 As the Baby Boomers collectively head into their twilight years, more and more middle-aged workers are having to deal with the repercussions of aging parents. For people of a certain age, this can mean spending a lot of time and a lot of money on doctors’ appointments, medicare paperwork, and general care for their loved ones. In some cases, these responsibilities can be so demanding that it affects work. It’s a really difficult position to be in.

      The sad (or beautiful, depending on your worldview) truth is that largely due to the miracles of modern science, our parents often end up becoming like our children--very much alive and maybe even moderately healthy, but in need of our time and attention. And some of us feel compelled to take care of them. I am sure you know that not everyone sees it this way. But for those of us that do, it is nice to see that companies are becoming increasingly more empathetic to this need. Many companies have recently instituted a family leave policy similar to maternity or paternity leave, which gives you time off if a family member is ill and guarantees you your job back when you’re ready to return to work. Some day--sooner than you think--this sort of all encompassing family leave will replace what we know today as maternity leave. The New York State Legislature recently passed the nation’s first bill of its kind that will, once fully phased in, provide workers with 12 weeks of paid “family leave” that workers would buy into like a pension plan. Companies like Facebook are also moving in that direction. After Mark Zuckerberg took leave when his wife recently gave birth, he said that he hopes everyone in the company takes their full leave, too. All of this is a huge departure from the previous status quo where workers were expected to come into the office unless they were dead.  

     With all that said, the system is still far from perfect and not everyone is lucky enough to work at Facebook. For the rest of us, some sort of “Best Days Are Behind Them Leave, “ would be a welcome addition. It is a distraction to have to be present for doctors appointments, and as I know from my own experience with my father, dealing with Medicare and what I call supplemental insurance can be draining. Mostly, we all want to be there for our parents like they were there for us, and taking care of them means real time away from the workplace. As nice as having the time off would be, the reality is that most of us don’t have the luxury.

     Now, I get questions all the time from people concerned that they’ll lose their jobs because of the distraction of taking care of a sick parent. Aside from the time away from work, they say they end up having to deal with all the issues that end up popping up while they’re in the office too. I have a friend whose father would call him on his cell phone every hour to complain about whatever little thing was on his mind. And, bless him, he couldn’t help but take the call--whether he was in a meeting or working on an important document or whatever else.

      The honest truth is that when you’re distracted at work because of a sick parent, your boss does begin to think of you differently and your coworkers are fed up with covering for you. This doesn’t mean that they’re cruel people or unempathetic. I’m sure they feel very badly for you, but your absence is affecting their lives. My recommendation to those of you in this situation is to try to focus on balancing your time better. Start by dividing it into categories. For example, maybe you decide that you’ll manage medical paperwork before or after work or on your lunch hour every Monday. As for the constant phone calls, whether they be from your dad, a healthcare worker, or a family member, you need to set boundaries, even if only in your head. When you’re at your job, you need to find a way to be there mentally. As frustrating as I’m sure it is for your boss when you’re out, I’d bet a month’s rent that he or she gets far angrier about the times when you’re in the office but doing other things.

      Ultimately, everyone knows how difficult it can be dealing with a sick family member. It can be both physically and emotionally taxing. I find that when you’re stretched as thin as you think you can be, stressed beyond belief, it helps to put yourself in your loved one’s position. I’m sure that whoever you’re caring for knows that you’re doing everything that you can, and I’m sure they wouldn’t want you to lose your job.

      Finally, remember that as all-consuming as this situation might be for you, the worst thing you can do is constantly bring it up at work. Everyone there who needs to know knows. Keep your business to yourself. Be patient with the process, take care of your family, and do your best to balance your work. You’re not superman and both your boss and your family know that.