A caregiver holds the hand of an elder patient.

From Working to Caregiving: What You Need to Know

According to the 2015 AARP report on caregiving in the United States, roughly 43.5 million Americans have taken unpaid time off work to care for a loved one. Many caregivers feel like they don’t have a choice but to take off work. Yet for many, there are other options. 

The costs of full-time caregiving are more than just the loss of income. There is also decreased employability, increased health care costs, and lost retirement savings. If you’re considering joining the ranks of full-time caregivers, take a moment to consider your alternatives first.

Take an Extended Leave of Absence

You may be able to take an extended leave of absence from work rather than quitting your job entirely. The first step is to meet with your Human Resources representative. All HR departments are required by law to inform you of your legal rights for extended leaves of absence. They should also discuss your eligibility for any laws that can help you, including: 

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Under FMLA, you’re able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for your parents without fear of losing your job. As a federal law, FMLA protects your job title and employment status with your current company for the 12 weeks you are absent.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Are your parents protected by ADA? If yes, then your caregiving for them will be protected as well. Employers cannot discriminate against employees taking time off to care for a loved one who is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 
  • State-Specific Laws: If you are not covered under FMLA or ADA requirements, look through your local state laws. Many state laws have caregiving protections that may apply to you.

What happens if none of these laws apply to you? Your employer is not required to give you time off or make any accommodations. Depending on your working situation, you may be able to speak with your boss and offer alternate solutions. Offer to work from home, change some of your job duties, or take advantage of flextime if available.

Consider Alternative Caregiving Options

Most caregivers only budget to not work for a few months, but the average duration is actually five years. Can your family get by without your income for that long? How will dropping out of the workforce affect your retirement savings and insurance benefits in the long-term?  

It may be both cheaper and more sustainable to pay for caregiving assistance rather than trying to do it all by yourself. Consider paying for caregiver alternatives such as:

  • Medical Alerts: When no one else is at home, a medical alert will allow your loved one to call for help by pressing a button. Some models come with automatic fall detection.
  • Home Health Aides: At-home health assistants can help your loved one with daily personal tasks like bathing, dressing, light housekeeping duties, and transportation. They cannot do most medical tasks, however.
  • Certified Nursing Assistants:CNA can do everything a home health care aide does as well as helping with basic medical needs. 
  • Adult Day Care: Classified as respite care, an adult day care will take tend to your loved one during the day. A day care will make sure your loved one receives proper care while providing a friendly community atmosphere complete with socialization opportunities. 
  • Assisted Living: If your loved one isn’t capable of being by themselves, an assisted living facility can provide round-the-clock care.

These alternative options can help supplement or entirely replace the need for you to care for your loved one. It is as important to take care of yourself as it is to take care of your loved one. Running yourself into the ground financially or emotionally will not make you a better caregiver.

Prepare to Rejoin the Workforce 

Leaving the workforce for caregiving means that, at some point, you’ll need to rejoin the working world. The key to a successful transition is to prepare before you begin your job search. 

  • Stay up to date in your field. Your work skills will be rusty after the time away. As you start to think about heading back to work, catch up on the latest news, take online classes to refresh your skills, and start meeting with old connections to rekindle networking relationships.
  • Add caregiving to your resume. No hiring manager likes to see unexplained gaps on a resume. Add your caregiving to your resume as a line item—after all, it was a full-time job. 
  • Answer questions on your own terms. Hiring managers and coworkers will be curious about your extended time away from work. You can be private about the details if you wish. Keep your answers simple and straightforward, but don’t try to disguise the gap. Most people will understand the need to take care of a loved one and won’t pry.

Take Care of Both Your Loved One and Yourself

Caregiving is a selfless act, but you will be an even better caregiver if you also take care of yourself. Plan your budget and time so that you have enough resources to recover when your time as a primary caregiver comes to an end.

Tracy Layden is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Tracy leads the marketing efforts at Alert-1, a personal safety technology and consulting firm dedicated to helping seniors live safely and independently. Tracy holds a degree in mathematics from Scripps College and is an accomplished ballroom dancer and equestrian.

Last Updated: April 05, 2017