In 2003, Shirley Roberts’ life started to fall apart.
Her marketing consultancy was booming. Divorced, she had found a new man she loved. But after her father died that year, within three months her mother, Doris, started to decline, and Ms. Roberts, already working six days a week to keep up with her clients’ needs, had to begin travelling from Toronto to Cobourg, Ont., every Sunday to look after her mother’s needs.
Determined to help her mother live independently, Ms. Roberts arrived once to find unopened mail collecting dust, laundry lying in piles on her basement floor, a burnt-out hallway light bulb, expired milk and yogurt cluttering the fridge, and her mother’s blouse covered in tea stains.
“I was trying to keep my clients and hold on to my future husband but she needed help. I was getting really frustrated as I saw she needed more help than I could give,” Ms. Roberts recalls in an interview. “There was tremendous anxiety. I didn’t know how emotional the task of caregiving to a parent can be – you see in their decline your own mortality. I was also failing at this, and I’m a high achiever – I didn’t like to fail.”
Her plight is, of course, becoming more and more common, as many in the baby boomer bulge deal with the final years of their parents’ lives. Indeed, research Ms. Roberts conducted for a book on the issue suggests over three million boomers are caring for an aging adult. For those boomers still working, in particular, it’s an immense work-life balance issue, and Ms. Roberts’ experience may offer some insights on how to improve your own situation.
Initially, Ms. Roberts was struggling alone, a solo firefighter dealing with whatever conflagrations arose. Worse, her mother’s health continued spiralling downwards. After 18 months, she had to enter a retirement home. Then after her mother fell and broke her hip and couldn’t walk or propel her wheelchair – and with dementia taking hold – a nursing home was needed.
“At this point, I desperately needed to find a better approach to caregiving because I was spending as much time putting out fires for Mom as I was consulting. Her quality of life and mine had taken serious nosedives ever since she landed in the hospital, and my caregiving duties would continue to increase as my mother became more dependent on me for her health and well being,” she says.
A graduate of the Ivey School of Business, she fell back on the organizational model and business discipline that had been familiar to her over the years. She formed a company-like approach she dubbed “Doris Inc.” to look after her mother’s needs. At the helm were Ms. Roberts and her brother, a financial consultant in Vancouver, who had been unable to handle the day-to-day caregiving but now could play an important role in overseeing the care that would be provided by three different teams the siblings set up to focus on their mother’s care.
The first group was the “family caregiving team,” which now included her brother, who could cover for her when she needed a vacation.
Second, she hired a “caregiver companion team,” who would spend time with her mother in the nursing home in two-hour shifts over the week when family wasn’t present. In her mother’s case, 19 two-hour shifts a week were organized with the caregivers for $14 an hour, which was about two-thirds of the rate she would have had to pay a professional caregiving agency. They were responsible for helping Doris eat, brushing her hair and teeth, washing and moisturizing her face and hands, cleaning her eyeglasses, and replacing the hearing aid batteries when she could no longer carry those activities out on her own. Under the guidance of the nursing home physiotherapist, they gave her massages and helped her stretch and do exercises to move her arms and legs.
But beyond that, they simply tried to provide companionship – conversation and hugs – and look after what needed to be done, such as putting on a sweater on cold days or asking the nursing home to help her go to the bathroom. And they kept notes in a logbook, so Ms. Roberts had a better idea of the situation when she came for her weekly stint. “Good people are at the heart of any successful business and I learned through experience to find out what was in the heart of a prospective employee,” says Ms. Roberts.
The third group looking after her mother included the professionals in the health-care team. Thanks to the logbook and all the extra attention given to her mother, Ms. Roberts was better armed to discuss the situation with them and make decisions. She and her brother financed the effort mainly by selling her parents’ home for $160,000 and investing those funds. She notes that for others who need to pay for eldercare, it could also be handled through a reverse mortgage if the parents continue to live in their own home.
Through Doris Inc., Ms. Roberts had taken charge of her mother’s care as well as her own work-life balance. She was no longer out of control, flying solo, and much of the stress was reduced. “It’s taking leadership over your life,” she says.
And even after he mother died, that lesson stayed with her, and she shares it in her new book, Doris Inc. She is now married to the man she was then dating and they live in Bath, Ont., and winter in Sebring, Fla. Ms. Roberts say she tries to take better care of herself and live much more in the present than the past, worrying less about the future.
Caregiving occurs throughout our lives, and she argues that our goal should be to have a happy, healthy, and rewarding life while caregiving – and after.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.
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