Employees providing care for their ailing parents is an exploding demographic in US Business
Employees providing care for their ailing parents is an exploding demographic in US Business. Photo Credit: Getty Images

I started Double Forte  in 2002 for many reasons, not the least of which was that my mother had just been diagnosed with stage 4 Lung Cancer with three months to live and I was going to be with her and my father for her final days. My parents lived in Wisconsin, I am in San Francisco, and neither of the positions I was in contention for at the time would have tolerated me starting a job and then being 2,000 miles away for a lot of what ended up being almost four years. I needed a job that let me be where I needed to be without repercussion.

For the first four years of the company I (and my own family) spent more than half of each year in Wisconsin. In between being with my mother, spelling my father from his constant care-giving, organizing care-giving and neighborhood support, advocating at doctor’s appointments, and coordinating with my sisters, I slowly built the company half-remotely with my very accommodating business partner. Not an ideal way to build a company – I don’t recommend it – but it worked for us, my family, and our clients.

The hardest dynamic, beyond the obvious losing my beloved mother, was the complete unpredictability of the situation. Unlike raising my children (a hard enough task!), who were 1 ½ and 4 years old when my mother was first diagnosed, which came with a very predictable schedule of milestones, doctor’s appointments, and complications, caring for my mother was a roller coaster of near-death experiences, reactions, waiting, recovery, tests and appointments. But we made it work. In the end that four years was a tremendous gift, one that I will never regret spending the way we did.

Unlike parental leave and accommodations which comes with a gestation period and predictability of the first few years of a child’s life, caregiving accommodation needs to be as fluid as possible because it is entirely unpredictable.

I’m one of the lucky ones: my parents had excellent health insurance, my father was fully able to care for my mother, and my sisters and I were able to create a tight schedule of additional support for our parents for the entire four years. However, all over this country tens of thousands of working children are single-handedly taking care of their chronically ill or dying parents and it’s taking a toll – on their wallets, on their families, on their health and on their employers.

My colleague Liz O’Donnell wrote about this growing phenomena in The Atlantic in her article “The Crisis Facing America’s Working Daughters.” It’s a powerful read that scales the problem – 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the US, women losing an average $324,044 in compensation due to care-giving, significant impact to a woman’s career due to care-giving a parent or sibling.

The significant impact on the caregivers is undeniable, and will continue to scale as the caregivers themselves age.

As Pew Research notes, “roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day” and will for the next 12 years. And as O’Donnell points out, the US will need between 5.7 and 6 million caregivers to support the sick and aging by 2030, and “unpaid, family caregivers will be called upon to meet that demand.”

Impact on Employers

The impact on employers is significant as well. A recent MetLife and National Alliance for Caregiving study estimates the cost to replace women who quit because caregiving at $3.3 Billion. I believe small businesses are much less well equipped to handle these transitions than large companies. And with more people employed by small companies than large ones,  I think the $3.3 billion just scratches the surface on the real toll care-giving will have on employers, and therefore employees. (More on that in the future.)

At Double Forte in 2014-15, six of our 36 employees (ages 26 to 55) had parents diagnosed with significant health conditions; four parents of employees died within six months of each other, and since then two other parents have been diagnosed with chronic illnesses.

These numbers though don’t tell the story either.

The Dominoes Don’t Stop at the Caregiving Employee

Employees taking care of an ill parent starts a domino chain that doesn’t stop at the employee. Each of our employees has a very different family dynamic; each employee chose to handle the situation very differently; each illness was very different, with its own vagaries, emergencies and timeline. Bottom line, each employee required very different accommodations at the office, from extended leave to reduced time, or a work-from-home or work-at-night schedule. We flexed to help each employee do what they thought was required with their parents, which in turn meant that each client team had a different dynamic too. So each team had to smooth the workflow in a different way so that no client work suffered during the interruption. Because no client, no matter how understanding, will stay with a firm that doesn’t deliver. We fumbled through it and learned a lot along the way – a lot we know we’ll need to use again in the future. In the end, of the six employees impacted by a parents sickness or death, four remain with us, one took almost a year off and decided to pursue a different career and another left to take time to be with her widowed mother. Overall I think we did very well.

3 Things We Learned From Our Caregiving Employees

  1. No one can be an island. We have always had a heavy email cc culture, which saved our bacon more than once when a team member had drop everything to be at the hospital where no phones were allowed. Make sure:
    1. no one is the only person who knows what’s going on;
    2. you have email and voicemail passwords; and
    3. you have automatic cloud backup for all your devices (we use Carbonite to give us redundancy).
  2. Everyone is different. Some people want to be busy at work, others need to go on complete leave, some will want to talk about it, others will not – there is no one way that caregivers will want to acknowledge or juggle their jobs and responsibilities. Let teams figure out a schedule and workload that works for the team and the caregiver. Our experience is that teams that respect each other move into help mode quickly once they know the situation. This does not mean that the care-giving employee doesn’t carry their weight. It may mean that the weight gets done differently.
  3. Your turn is coming. If you have living parents, your turn is probably coming. People will flex for you when you need it if you show you can flex for them now.

2014/15 was an extraordinary year for us with more than 20% of our team dealing with the loss of a close parent. We weathered the storm and came out the other side a stronger team because of how we supported each other and didn’t require everyone to respond the same way to their need to provide significant care to a parent. As a small company we are discussing ways now to prepare for the eventuality of needing to flex this way again – the first part of the preparation is knowing that it will happen. The second part is not prescribing a response, as there’s no way to know who’s next or what that situation will be. The third part is knowing that if you can flex to your employees you will be a stronger company for it.

*updated 9/28/17 10:20 AM