It was Saturday and thus my day to be at the nursing home. My mother was thrilled, eager to spend the morning watching “Press Your Luck” with me and telling me about her week so I struggled to hide my impatience, all the while thinking about how much I had to do at home and the board meeting the following week, scheduled to deliver my year end projections. I should be ashamed of myself. Glenn, my husband, visits her every day as the nursing staff never fail to remind me. I am not the caregiver in her life because I have an important job. I am a bad daughter.
Women are the caregivers. My husband and I talked long and hard about our future childcare options before we had children. We made the decision that he would stay home and be the full-time parent for many reasons, not the least of which was my career was on an upward trajectory and working was as necessary for me as breathing. Like many partners, we never, ever thought about the future worries of eldercare.
Women are the primary providers of care in our society and this is no more evident than in elder care. The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman offering care to her mother, who does not live with her. She is married and employed ((“Valuing the Invaluable” (2015 Update), AARP, 2015)). Although men provide help as well, women spend about 50% more time providing care (Family Caregiver Alliance, 2001).
This is the sandwich generation – a catchy phrase coined to describe the phenomenon of middle aged women caught between the demands of children and the demands of aging parents. The statistics are staggering. In 2016 there were approximately 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the US and the majority were women (US Census Bureau).
The impact on women and work is also staggering. A study jointly conducted by MetLife Mature Market Institute, National Alliance for Caregiving and the National Center for Women and Aging found that, when faced with eldercare responsibilities:
· 33% of working women decreased work hours;
· 29% passed up a job promotion, training or assignment;
· 22% took a leave of absence;
· 20% switched from FT to PT employment;
· 16% quit their jobs;
· 13% retired early.
The Family Wealth Advisors Council for Women of Wealth describe the dilemmas that these women juggle are and will continue to be “the single most significant transition challenge that women will face.” A MetLife study, conducted in 2010, found that leaving the workforce to provide care for an elderly relative cost the average woman $324,000 in lost wages and social security benefits.
We don’t ask why we do it because the answers are obvious: we do it out of love and duty. We don’t talk about the impact to our own careers because that would be selfish. That impact can be significant as the need to care for elderly relatives hits us in our mid-40’s, just around the time of our maximum earning potential and dangerously close to the age when we might not be able to come back to the workforce if we’re forced to leave. Those caregiving chores can demand upward of 20 hours a week on top of work and other family demands. And, as workplaces have slowly made changes that support working parents, the problems of working with a parent in need are not part of the conversation.
My mother and I are sitting in her room, planning her 82nd birthday party to be held at the nursing home in a few weeks. She’s excited as she asks me if I can smuggle in beer for the drivers who take her to dialysis three times a week, because, she says, “You can’t have men at a party without beer. It just won’t be a success.” I promise to try and I use that promise to leave early, spending only 4 hours there instead of my typical six on Saturday; getting beer into a nursing home will require some doing but I have mad skills, honed by running a company. I will deliver on my promise but now I need to go prepare my year-end financials.
My presentation goes well and the birthday party plans take shape. I miss a Sunday visiting because I haven’t done any of the Christmas shopping yet. She understands. I usually drop in on Thursday nights for about an hour, knowing that Glenn has already visited that day. Over the weekend I tell her that I’m going to miss next Thursday because it is the company’s annual holiday party, but I promise to come on Friday so we can go over party plans. It’s getting close. We have it scheduled for next Tuesday afternoon and now I shamelessly lie, telling her that I have won approval for beer to serve the ambulance drivers, anything to get out of there and get home. She reassures me that missing Thursday is fine. “Have a good time at the party,” she tells me. “You deserve it.”
She died Thursday night. My purse, holding my cell phone, was behind the bar at the holiday party and I missed Glenn’s calls. He was with her when she died. Her last intelligible words were to ask him to take care of Gus, her cat. She didn’t ask him to take care of her daughter, something I’ve imagined that mothers of good daughters would do. I am a bad daughter. And on dark days I hope that I have good sons.