When your workforce are balancing work and care

There has been lots in the press recently about the pressures on the NHS and social care, these pressures are being picked up by families, often the adult children of elderly parents, many of whom are still in work. Some of those looking after elderly parents, have their own dependent children at home, hence finding themselves sandwiched between the needs of their parents and their children.  This was where we found ourselves, our eldest was 4 when we lost my husband’s dad, my youngest was just 2.

As a brief context, my 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 Mum told us she thought Dad had dementia, it took over a year to get a diagnosis and Dad 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 to Dad stop being about popping in for a cuppa and a laugh whilst the kids 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, Dad’s had a fall or the discovery that someone has taken his money.

We asked for help, we knew he couldn’t cope at home, 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. We were only able to get Dad into a care home once he became so ill he was hospitalized, even then only for the final 6 months.

All of this happens whilst trying to work, work life balance takes on a whole new meaning, when you’re racing to make it to the hospital for visiting time, evening and weekends become about caring, making sure the kids get their needs met whilst Dad gets his needs met. Time off is often needed to deal with pre-planned hospital or doctor appointments, there can be lots of them, then there are the emergencies.  The sleepless nights, both from dealing with the practicalities an emergency and the stress.  The emotion involved in trying to do the best for everyone, the guilt that whatever you do for Dad 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 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, I wanted to do a good job and learnt then I needed to make sure I did a good job with a deadline, 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 along way, I hear many positive stories from employers who have made it work for their employees, I’ve also heard many negative stories.  The attitude of the Manager makes a huge impact on whether the outcome is positive or negative.  Carers and parents are an increasing part of the workforce, flexible working has so many benefits for so many people, for this group especially.   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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