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Careers How eldercare takes a toll on women’s careers and health – and how employers can help ease the stress

Liz Rejman, associate director of fundraising at Pathways to Education, a charity helping youth overcome barriers to education. She is the primary caregiver for her now 99-year-old father and her 93-year-old mother.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Two years ago Liz Rejman was ready to hop a flight to California for an important meeting, when she received a phone call from her elderly father’s assisted-living facility. He had broken his wrist.

“You have to make choices. Does work come first in a moment when your parents might need you, or do you change your schedule?” asks Ms. Rejman, a fundraising director for Pathways to Education, a national charitable organization in Toronto.

In the end, because the injury was relatively minor and she was assured her father would receive good care, she decided to fly out for the meeting anyway. But the decision weighed heavily on her. Ms. Rejman is the primary caregiver for her now-99-year-old father and her 93-year-old mother; the couple divorced long ago. Although she has one other sibling, a half-brother, he lives in another city and is not involved in the day-to-day care decisions for their mother. Her father just naturally assumes she will take on that role for him, too.

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Liz O'Donnell, Boston-area author of Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Making a Living: 'We expect women to be nurturing and care-giving.'

Liz O'Donnell

“There is an expectation that it’s going to be the woman,” says Liz O’Donnell, founder of WorkingDaughter.com and Boston-based author of Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning a Living, coming out in August, 2019. She recalls a recent panel discussion she was part of with doctors, nurses and insurance experts. “I heard the word ‘daughter’ mentioned by the panelists seven times in the hour-long discussion. I never heard the word ‘son.’ We expect women to be nurturing and care-giving.”

Many Canadian women who are juggling demanding, full-time careers find themselves facing similar expectations, bearing the brunt of caring for aging parents who can no longer live independently. While the number of women versus men caring for elderly relations is slightly higher at 57 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, the tasks themselves cut through gender lines. Daughters typically do more inside the house – preparing meals, administering medications, co-ordinating doctor visits, cleaning and laundry.

Sons are more likely to pick up outdoor jobs and home-maintenance work. Unlike daily personal care, most of these chores aren’t time sensitive. They can wait until the weekend.

It is perhaps little wonder, then, that women take 30 per cent more time off work than men, according to 2017 CIBC data, and report feeling more stress related to care. While much has been written about the negative impact child rearing has on a woman’s paycheque, career trajectory and long-term savings, eldercare responsibilities can also lead to lost wages, reduced work hours, taking time out of the work force or even early retirement later.

Nejolla Korris knows these effects well. Her job as founder of InterVeritas International Ltd., a linguistic lie detection consulting firm in Edmonton, has her travelling many months a year giving presentations. Her mother, now 95, lived with her until nine months ago. Balancing work and care is easier now that her mom is in a senior’s facility, but Ms. Korris is the first to admit years of care have not been easy.

“The toll it took on my career and my health will take a few years to recover from,” she says now. “I haven’t bounced back to my normal pace of work.”

While she was away on business trips, she found overnight care for her mother, but it could run as high as $200 a night. Often her friends would stay over. Ms. Korris even installed security cameras around the house so she could keep an eye on her parent and give herself peace of mind. Eventually, though, she began taking months off work at a time, turning down speaking engagements, to relieve some of the stress. There was guilt, too.

“There were times I almost felt like I was cheating my clients because instead of having time to prepare my talks before I left, I was doing it at the last minute on my flight,” she says.

Pat Irwin, president of ElderCareCanada, a consulting service for adult children in Toronto, has heard hundreds of stories like Ms. Korris’s and says that eldercare’s timing could not be worse for many women, but it is nearly as bad for their employers.

“Not only are these women in their peak earning years, they have enormous experience,” she says. “And chances are that the workplace has invested a lot in them, but they have to leave. They can’t make it work. It’s pretty sad.”

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Susan Hyatt is CEO and co-founder of Silver Sherpa, which helps people navigate services for seniors: 'Just like you would prepare for childbirth, you need to prepare for eldercare.'

Susan Hyatt

Susan Hyatt, chief executive officer of Oakville, Ont.-based Silver Sherpa Inc., a senior crisis and planning firm, calls it a “retention issue” that company leaders need to start addressing. While some employers, such as Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, KPMG and Deloitte, offer flexible care policies, there is a lot more employers can do to retain experienced employees. After all, while 55 hours of paid time off certainly helps, considering people typically care for elderly relatives for years, according to Statistics Canada, it is just a drop in the bucket.

Flexible work arrangements help most, say many employees, and so do compressed work weeks. But offering employees courses around eldercare is helpful, too. That way everyone can gain a better understanding of what their stretched colleagues are experiencing.

Still, women need to advocate for themselves and prepare in advance, too. That might mean asking a brother to step up and take on some of the in-home care duties before they are ever needed. It means having a heart-to-heart with parents well in advance, too.

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“Just like you would prepare for childbirth, you need to prepare for eldercare,” says Ms. Hyatt. “If you’re between the ages of 40 and 65, and you’ve got parents – get ready.”

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