Opt Out, Pushed Out…Can’t We Choose Something Different?

“Being a caregiver made me a better person and worse employee,” were the exact words that an attendee in my workshop shared with me. We were having a sidebar conversation during the break. I was delivering a Stress Management seminar on behalf of an EAP (Employee Assistance Program).

For all of the times I’ve gone blank with my mind racing for the right thing to say, this time I knew with calm and understanding exactly what she was saying and what to do. “I used to think that about myself when I was caregiving too,” I replied and prompted her to share more. As you might expect, her workplace examples had to do with living in a constant state of guilt. A pattern of what I call the “I’m sorry’s.”

I’m sorry I’m late…my mother’s doctor’s appointment ran later than I expected.

I’m sorry I can’t attend the conference. I can’t spend any more nights away.

I’m sorry to miss drinks after work with the team. It’s the same time I pick up my kids.

Guilt. Guilt. And more guilt.

Working family caregivers know exactly what I’m talking about, especially women. In a dementia-related study from Home Care, the female guilt factor was definitively measured, stating, “When it comes to managing child and senior care, female dementia caregivers experience higher rates of caregiver guilt. Furthermore, researchers at Stanford recently discovered that women are at higher risk for lowering or exiting their career trajectory owing to caregiver demands.”

According to Home Care’s survey, female dementia caregivers were 61 percent more likely to feel extreme guilt for not tending to their own family and children’s needs than their male counterparts.

Not that we need formal studies and reports to know that we walk around with a fair amount of guilt. But it’s validating nonetheless.

My workshop buddy and I ran out of time during the short break to talk at length about her situation, but we agreed the more important quality granted from caregiving was the “being a better person” part. I also reminded her that she still had choices and options.

From my family caregiving experience (dementia and all), I morphed from the confident stride of corporate swagger to someone able to sit quietly beside all types of elderly in the nursing home hallway line-up and listen to reminiscing about happy times, failings, and regrets. Over time, my own pace and perspective became more thoughtful and deliberate.

I had less tolerance for the minutia and pettiness of workplace drama and, therefore, removed myself from the mix. I suppose to colleagues it came across as being on a moralistic high horse. Ha, my own personal version of “ain’t nobody got time for dat!”

My notion of what was truly important in these short lives of ours changed significantly after being around nursing home residents—people at the end of their life’s journey. The experience shifted my perspective and humbled me.

But thoughtful humbleness is not necessarily understood or welcomed in the business world. Then again, I did little to try and explain. Being too emotionally raw and in the midst of the long goodbye, I was afraid to show, well, vulnerability. Based on the work that I now do, including this recent sidebar workshop interaction, I do know for sure—the same is true for others.

Many organizations struggle to foster a culture in which people can truly speak from the heart about their circumstances, not realizing that the experience and skills of those same employees, (the ones who may be temporarily withdrawn, appear shell-shocked and over-apologetic) will be, in time, your best mediators, team-members, collaborators and managers. Even companies leading the way implementing flexible workplace policies know there’s still work to be done to institute high-performing, empathetic and inclusive cultures. Kindness and compassion is what’s required in the new workplace.

It begins with seeing the apologizers, the shell-shocked (aka-exhaustion) and recognizing them for the weight they’re carrying. Managers with a discerning eye will help to anticipate work-loads that need adjusting, spot team dynamics that may be askew, and initiate necessary conversations before good talent walks.

In the meantime, my hard-working family caregiving compadres, remember to have a little compassion for yourself as well! Even though we compartmentalize and slip into our work persona, we’re still one person regardless. A better person equals a better employee. Period.

Also remember that you are able to make choices for yourself, as well as for your caree. Just as I reminded my workshop bud…the choice, after all, is always yours. Why choose guilt? You choose happiness or sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose whether to leave or stay. You choose courage. You choose.

As always, if you have thoughts about what it’s like to raise your family, manage a career and take care of a sick or aging parent, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, or email me privately at sb@wearesharingthesun.com

Feel free to tap into comments and experiences from others in similar family caregiving situations in the active, supportive community at www.caregiving.com.

Click to download Home Care’s complete report about the emotional cost of dementia caregiving

Sarabeth Persiani

Sarahbeth Persiani is the author of Run, Walk, Crawl- A Caregiver Caught Between Generations. For five years, Sarahbeth was the primary caregiver for her Father, who had dementia, while working full-time and taking care of her own family. As the founder of We Are Sharing the Sun, her focus these days is to help companies create a supportive culture for family caregivers and provide education, support and encouragement for working professionals who are themselves in the sandwich squeeze.