For millions of Americans, the reality of declining health of an older relative raises profound emotional, spiritual, and financial issues. And, unlike previous generations, today's 50-something sons and daughters face an additional challenge: juggling responsibilities for caregiving with paid employment.

Most of us experience elder care as a crisis. We are ill-prepared to cope with a parent's decline because we have not prepared for this eventuality. We feel stretched by the demands of long work hours and other family responsibilities. Yet, elder caregiving offers us a unique and powerful opportunity for personal growth. It is possible to find a balance between elder care and work by following six simple steps to gaining perspective and creating a personal action plan. The process begins with an assessment of our unique circumstances and includes learning about resources at work and in the community, defining options, implementing a plan, monitoring for changes, and making adjustments as needed.

Having lived the elder care experience and integrated it into the fabric of my life, I can share some guidelines and insights with universal applicability:

1. Honestly assess your job. If you have a job description, take a fresh look at it. Make sure it is up-to-date. Otherwise, write down your job responsibilities on a piece of paper. Ask yourself whether the job still makes sense for you in your situation. Are there aspects of the job that can be shared with others? How much scheduling flexibility do you have? If you decide you want to stay in the job, make a list of what you need in order to cope before approaching a supervisor to discuss your situation.

2. Know your rights. Family caregivers have legal rights in some circumstances. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to organizations with 50 or more employees. Workers who are eligible for FMLA leave may take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave in a twelve-month period when an employee or family member has a serious health condition. And you can take needed time off in small increments - a day or two here and there - as long as you follow the FMLA applicationprocedures. For more information on the FMLA eligibility and provisions, visit the U.S. Department of Labor website at or The National Partnership for Women and Families at

3. Assess the "climate" at work. What is your company's philosophy and track record on supporting employees with work/life balance needs? Has the manager or supervisor to whom you report responded positively to the requests of other employees with similar issues? If the climate is one of trust and support for work/family balance, you may be able to make use of one of the best on-the-job sources of support: your supervisor and co-workers.

4. Speak to others. If the level of trust at your work place is positive, let your manager or key co-workers know what is going on, so they can provide support. When caregiving demands require you to take time off or cause you to give less than 100% at work, people notice. If you don't share information about your situation, others may think you are simply not pulling your weight. Some co-workers may feel resentful. You could set yourself up for a poor performance appraisal, which will hurt your chances of getting help. Talk to your supervisor before a conflict develops. If the level of trust is less than positive, or you are not comfortable bringing up the subject, consider contacting the EAP or human resources staff (see #9, below).

5. Consider the employer's viewpoint. When you tell your manager what you need, be sure to also show that you appreciate your manager's responsibilities and the objectives of the company. You are more likely to achieve a positive result if you can talk about both your needs and the company's goals for your position.

6. Be specific. When you meet with your manager, be clear about what you want. For example, if you are caring for someone recovering from an operation, you might suggest that, over the next four weeks, you be allowed to come in one hour later and leave one hour earlier each day rather than asking for "flexible hours."

7. Be proactive and creative. You know your own workload and how to manage it. If you are dealing with a crisis and can't concentrate on work or plan ahead for work requirements right now, arrange for willing co-workers to pick up your responsibilities during the time you need for personal leave. If your work is such that you can do some of it at home, propose an arrangement for a schedule that allows you to produce a specific amount of work at home on a daily or weekly basis.

8. Set a timeframe to assess new work arrangements. Suggest that any change in work arrangement be time-limited, so that you and the manager can review the situation after a reasonable period of time to determine if it is working from both your points of view.

9. Make use of resources at work. Some companies offer Web-based resources or an "800" number for consultation and referral services where you can reach a trained caregiving counselor who will help you identify and secure needed services for you and your loved one. At some companies, the Employee Relations staff can also help, serving as a neutral third party, to bring together employee and supervisor to resolve conflicts.

Balancing family caregiving and work responsibilities can be a real challenge. Still, today's caregivers can work out arrangements that make it possible to do both. The essential first step is to make your needs known. If the climate is right, speak up sooner rather than later. You and your loved one -- and your company -- will be glad you did!

Author's Bio: 

John Paul Marosy is a leading expert on balancing responsibilities for elder care and work. He is the author of the award-winning book, Elder Care: A Six Step Guide to Balancing Work and Family and A Manager's Guide to Elder Care and Work. His is president of Bringing Elder Care Home LLC, a training and consulting firm specializing in elder care/work balance.

He is the publisher of the free monthly e-newsletter, Elder Care/Work Balance. He presents keynote speeches and training programs for employees and managers throughout the U.S.

A graduate of Saint Peter's College and Boston University, John Paul has worked in executive leadership capacities in home health care and aging services for over 30 years. He is presently executive director of Senior Care Alternatives, the private home care division of the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston. John Paul is a former board member of the National Family Caregivers Association and a co-founder of the Family Caregiver Coalition of New England. He is a former family caregiver to his father.