November 27, 2011
By Jenya Cassidy, Labor Project for Working Families
My 92-year-old grandmother recently fainted while walking to get her mail. She fell forward so hard she fractured bones in her face and arm. The fall and the low blood pressure that caused the fall disoriented her to the point where she forgot where she was. She ended up in the hospital and then in a temporary nursing home to regain her strength. Even though she continued to be disoriented and lose consciousness in the hospital, we had a hard time convincing her that she would still need help when she was strong enough to return home.
My grandmother has always been fiercely independent and ahead of her time. When her kids were grown, she went back to college then had a full career as a high school teacher. She has traveled all over the world. At 88, she voluntarily moved to an assisted living home but quickly moved out and into her own apartment when the other residents “got too bossy.” The transition from being self-sufficient to needing round the clock care was quite sudden for her and the whole family. And it changes everything.
In my job with the California Work and Family Coalition, I help build statewide activism around the rights of parents and caregivers in the workplace. I am a parent myself and I usually say that working caregivers and parents have similar needs – time, flexibility and economic security. But the experience with my grandmother has taught me that caregivers are in a uniquely difficult situation. They have to help a respected and loved family member deal with loss of independence while struggling to balance their own jobs, increased financial stress and an almost impossible workload.
According to US News and World Report, eventually most US families will be involved in some form of caregiving. The senior population is growing faster than any other group. By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be at least 65 years old. We are moving into unchartered territory where people live longer, caregiving needs are growing and many elders have no retirement funds let alone long term care plans. The increased need for caregiving combined with the changed economy means that more full and part time workers are also caregivers.
Caregiving often has a negative impact on a family’s finances when the caregiver has to take unpaid time off work, go part-time or stop working altogether. In 2002, the Work and Family Coalition fought for the successful passage of the first paid family leave law in the country. Workers who pay into SDI can take paid leave to care for a spouse, child or parent. We are working on expanding this to grandparents, parents-in-law, siblings and adult children. Paid leave programs provide some economic security to caregivers who need to take time off work.
Taking on the job of caring for a family member can be daunting at first. Recently, I was invited to speak on a panel about caregiving at an American Library Association conference. Audience members wanted information about family leave laws but they were most hungry to talk to each other, share stories and ideas.
I understand the need to hear about others’ experiences. I was talking to a union friend about caring for his grandmother. Before she left the hospital, her nurse asked him if he wanted to feed her. His first thought was, “I don’t know how to do this.” And then he realized he did know how to do it. In fact, he had done it before for his two children when they were little. He picked up the spoon and began.
As a country, we will have to do better to support family caregivers. Working caregivers need flexibility on the job. And all caregivers need respite, financial help and a way to connect to others for information and support. Looking to organizations like Family Caregiver Alliance is a great way to get resources and learn from others in the same situation. To join the movement to make workplaces more ‘caregiver friendly’ go to Family Values @Work to find a coalition near you. Together we can make a difference for all families.
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Day 27: Caregivers: We Need to Work Together for Change by Jenya Cassidy, Labor Project for Working Families is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.