Field Notes: Balancing your career when caring for a loved one

December 10, 2018
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younger male comforts an older male, who is crying, by holding his hands

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Sherry Wells, Assistant Vice Provost - Lamar University; AACRAO Program Committee Group I Coordinator

As I suspect many working adults would agree, maintaining a good balance between a career and a personal life can be challenging. With the evolution of technology that made phones and e-mail accessible almost anywhere at any time, coupled with changes in higher education that moved from traditional brick-and-mortar institutions to online learning and working, many professionals in higher education saw the scales tip severely toward “work” in the work/life balance.

However, many people in the aptly named “sandwich generation” have found the demands of caring for aging parents tugging the scales back in the direction of “life,” and we have to regroup.

What is the sandwich generation? This term was coined in 1981 by Dorothy Miller to describe a group of adults – typically in their 30s, 40s or 50s -- who are caring for aging parents or relatives while still caring for children under the age of 21 and living at home. Here are a few facts about this group:

  • According to The World Bank, in 1997 there were 392,927,865 people in the world over the age of 65. In 2017 that number had grown to 654,567,936. (Population Ages 65 and Above, n.d.)

  • Almost half of people aged 45-55 have an aging parent and a child under the age of 21.

  • Fifteen percent are not only providing care but financial support to both a parent and a child. (Hodder, 2018)

Juggling level: Expert
Balancing your own home and financial responsibilities along with full time employment is challenging. Adding another person’s life – home, auto, finances, health, etc. – to that scale takes balancing to expert skill level. I speak from personal experience and admit this balance has been one of the most challenging I have encountered.

I have learned that being a good employee and being a good caretaker do not have to be mutually exclusive --  although admittedly some days I do a better job at one than the other. I have also learned that being flexible under these circumstances is not only helpful but a necessity. A person who cannot bend will break under this level of stress.

Strategies for coping personally and professionally
Creating a healthy work/life balance under these difficult circumstances may mean making adjustments to your professional life.

Examples of professional adjustments might be:

  1. Take a professional pause. Opportunities for advancement may need to be put on hold. Whereas you might have been open to more challenging roles, this is probably not the time to add to your responsibilities
  2. Use your benefits. Explore the different types of benefits offered through your employer and use them. These benefits could range from Family Medical Leave to respite care or mental health services. Your college or university website is a great place to start researching these.
  3. Use flex hours. Work schedules may need to be more flexible. If you are in a situation where you can adjust your work hours when needed or even work remotely from home some days, do not hesitate to utilize that option. Some employers are willing to accommodate proven employees rather than risk losing them. You can also create a portable folder, notebook, briefcase, laptop, or backpack to carry work in that you can accomplish away from your desk. I have read a lot of e-mails, journals, memos, and reports sitting in waiting rooms or hospitals. In fact, part of this article was written in a waiting room while my son was having dental work done. Why not be productive instead of reading an outdated magazine or watching HGTV?
  4. Be honest. Frank discussions with your employer may be necessary to formulate a plan that will allow you to continue fulfilling all of your obligations at work. Expectations need to be set and understood
  5. Accept ‘good enough.’ If you are like me, you need to remind yourself that meeting expectations under these circumstances is sufficient. You can go back to striving to be a superstar and exceeding expectations when you aren’t the middle of a sandwich
  6. Don’t overcommit. If you have wasted time during the workday, cut it out. This may mean skipping some of the ‘social’ activities that are occurring on your campus but do not require your presence. I advise stepping back from certain responsibilities such as being the sponsor or a member of organizations that are not requirements of your position. Also, take a hard look at your professional development and then keep the ones that are truly beneficial to you or your campus. Eliminate any professional development you may have been attending out of habit or convenience.
  7. Delegate when possible.

Adjustments in your personal life will also be a necessity. Each person will be different in this respect but here are some of mine:

Reprioritize. Reconcile that things that might have been important to you before – a clean home, manicured lawn, perfect club attendance, hosting get togethers, etc. – are just not as important when compared to your own health and well-being.

Be practical with money. Finances will probably be challenging regardless of how well you and/or your parents planned. Understanding someone else’s financial portfolio and obligations takes a rapid learning curve. You may be the primary caregiver for a short or long term but regardless of the time frame making wise money choices is a necessity.

Understand that relationships may change. Personal relationships may be tested as you adjust to your dual roles. Be honest with yourself and with those you care about. That is the best you can do in this situation. Some relationships may not survive while others may become stronger.

Accept that there will be less leisure time, and less leave. Some leisure activities and hobbies will be forsaken. I stopped reading the newspaper daily. I did not go to a movie for a long period of time. I watched my favorite television shows only when I could get them ‘on demand’ or recorded because life in a sandwich is unpredictable at best. Personal leave will also be stretched thin with all of the possibilities of health issues and appointments which will limit leisure time choices. Utilizing some of the benefits from your employer may ease this concern to an extent. However, there will be three or more people depending on how many children and parents you are caring for who will have doctor’s appointments, dentist appointments, sudden illnesses, etc. That adds up fast even for those who have excellent attendance and leave balances.

Spring flowers & well-meant advice
At the beginning of my time in the sandwich phase of my life I got annoyed when people tried to be inspiring by saying things like “You can’t pour from an empty vessel, so you have to replenish yourself” or “Don’t forget to take time for you.” It felt like being in the middle of a hurricane and someone reminding you to choose which flowers you want to plant on the patio – timing can be everything. But when spring comes, even if the winds are still blowing, flowers are a beautiful sight to see blooming on your patio and can restore something essential in you.

The scales probably will never fully balance between work and life – at least for any extended period of time -- it’s a constant balancing act. Keep adjusting each time the scales tip too far in one direction, and you can help yourself succeed in both of your worlds.


Works Cited:

Hodder, C. (2018). Estate Planning for the Sandwich Generation. Hodderink.

Population ages 65 and above, total. (2017 Revision). Retrieved from The World Bank Data: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.65UP.TO?end=2017&start=1960&view=chart