Should You Quit Your Job to Care for a Loved One?

This Labor Day, we're calling attention to the millions of working Americans who have a second full-time job: providing care for an elderly parent, spouse or other loved one.

Worried working woman at her desk with phone

Regina felt like she was one of the working moms who "had it all," successfully balancing her demanding job while parenting two teens. And then, Dad had a stroke …

A 2016 study from the University of Buffalo shed light on an often-overlooked factor in the ongoing earnings gap between men and women. Said study author Sean Fahle, Ph.D., "As longevity increases, the need for elder care is growing, and the lion's share of that burden falls to women. And to give such care, many are forced to cut back on working or leave the workforce entirely."

Of course, working women are not the only ones to feel this effect. Today approximately one-third of caregivers are men. This is partly because of changing gender roles — but also because there are fewer caregivers to choose from when a senior experiences health problems. Said Fahle, "People are living longer, Alzheimer's is projected to increase, and meanwhile family sizes are shrinking, so the burden of caregiving is falling on fewer children."

Caregiving is costly. Last year the AARP reported that family caregivers spend an average of 20 percent of their income on caregiver costs. They also provide $470 billion worth of unpaid care each year. The AARP's Susan Reinhard told Kaiser Health News, "As technology increases and people live longer and live with more complex care needs, the family has been picking it up, not the formal healthcare system."

Working caregivers know this means that their careers can suffer. Employees feel torn between their caregiving tasks and their job duties. Said one caregiving son whose father is living at home with early-stage Alzheimer's disease, "When I'm at work, I'm worrying about Dad, and when I’m home taking care of Dad, I worry about my job." Caregivers often miss out on opportunities for advancement and travel. They use all their vacation time caring for their loved one, and sometimes must take unpaid leave. And workers who are in the "sandwich generation," with children still at home — or those who would dearly love to spend more time with their grandchildren — feel even more torn!

Providing care makes it less likely that a caregiver will have a secure retirement. The AARP reports that 25 percent of today's retirees left the workforce earlier than planned in order to provide care for an ill spouse or parent. They may have dipped into retirement accounts or taken out loans to pay for their loved one's needs. Leaving the workforce means these caregivers lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, reduced Social Security benefits and pensions. Meanwhile, caregiving may have prevented them from building the social network of friends and neighbors who could provide informal support.

Caregivers are less likely to take care of their own health. There's an old saying: "Care for yourself so you'll be a better caregiver for your loved one." Working caregivers might well retort: "When?" Studies show caregivers are less likely to exercise, go to the doctor or get enough sleep. Paradoxically, working caregivers can feel lonely and isolated, rushing home from work to care for their loved one rather than socializing with co-workers or meeting a friend for a movie. The stress of caregiving puts them at higher risk of a host of health conditions — including Alzheimer's disease — and even can shorten their lives.

So … Would It Be Better to Quit?

After the umpteenth time of excusing themselves from a meeting because Mom is on the phone, caregivers cannot be blamed for thinking it would be best if they quit their job to avoid the conflicting claims on their time. But this is a decision to think through carefully, rather than acting on stress or guilt. "I can come back later," they might think — but studies show many caregivers have trouble re-entering the workforce. If your loved one has a life-limiting illness, taking a leave might be a good choice. But long-term caregivers should explore the alternatives and consider their options:

Talk to family. This should be your first step. Hold a family meeting with your siblings, adult children and other family members, and if possible, your loved one. Prepare a list of tasks you've been doing for your loved one, and present an estimate of money you're spending and time you are taking off from work. Other family members may be willing to take on more of the caregiving load. In some families, other family members reimburse the primary caregiver for providing care. For working caregivers, having family members chip in to cover the cost of professional care is often a better choice.

Explore options with your employer. Today, more employers realize that it's good business to support employees who are caring for elderly parents. According to the AARP, companies lose $33.6 billion each year to lost productivity due to employee caregiving responsibilities. So it's worth their while to offer caregiver support — and it's also a perk that helps them retain valuable employees who are often at the peak of their careers. Talk to your employer about family leave, flex time, telecommuting and job sharing. Some companies offer care manager services to help caregiver employees access services and support. Some even offer emergency backup adult caregiving.

Call in professionals. Consider hiring a geriatric care manager (now known as an aging life care professional) to meet with your family and help you learn about available services and benefits to which your loved one may be entitled. Professional in-home care also can be a good solution to simultaneously protect your loved one's health and your career. These professionals provide personal care, such as assistance with bathing, dressing and grooming. They perform light housekeeping, prepare meals, and can transport your loved one to doctor appointments and social opportunities, keeping your loved one active, engaged and connected with the community. When a trustworthy, skilled caregiver is with your loved one, you can focus on your work when you're at work — and spend more time doing things you and your loved one enjoy when you're together. Home care can be an excellent investment to help working caregivers continue their paid work and protect their financial well-being.

Join a support group. Nobody understands what a caregiver is going through better than other caregivers! Support groups provide emotional support, information sharing and companionship for caregivers, in a nonjudgmental setting. Some support groups are for caregivers whose loved one is living with a specific health condition, such as Alzheimer's disease, heart failure or stroke. Support groups offer reassurance that you’re not alone — and even provide a good laugh now and again.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.