Much has been written about mid-life crisis and mid-life career transitions. However, there is one key area that is rarely mentioned that has the potential to impact your career during this phase of your career life cycle.
Caring for Aging – Elderly Parents whom have been diagnosed with a chronic or terminal medical condition.
Whilst my individual story commences a little earlier than most, in my mid-late 20’s, the experiences and lessons learnt could easily be applied across the board to those who are either the primary carer or a main support structure for the primary carer.
When I first learnt of my fathers’ chronic medical condition, a form of Leukemia, it was five years after his diagnosis and he had been admitted to a major Sydney Hospital with his system shutting down close to death. So, the notification, given by my mother, was a double whammy – not only did he have this chronic medical condition that he did not tell us about for five years but he was also close to death. My father survived and is still alive today (15 years on) – his doctors say he is a medical enigma.
As the youngest child, described by many as a helper; I naturally took on this role not as the primary carer but as a regular support structure for both my mother and father – making sure they were OK; from regularly contacting my parents and making myself available when they came to Sydney for treatments, warmly welcoming them into our home, regularly taking time out of my work day to meet them at the hospital and been there for both during numerous operations, sacrificing work opportunities and personal time to make sure they were looked after, supported and cared for during these difficult periods; after all that is my role as their child – they looked after me growing up, now it was my turn – well that was my thought process then and for many years until in the last four years when my world was fundamentally shaken – rocked to the core by repeated and ongoing negative and toxic comments that were made that can never be taken back.
Over the last year or so I have been processing these comments and the impact with a wise mentor and therapist who has been my rock during a very difficult period of my life (not only due ones parents but other life issues) and as a result was finding my way forward, moving forward with confidence, direction, hope and purpose finally feeling like I was getting on top of things when wham, my husband had a brief conversation with my father (on Easter Sunday) who stated that my mother had been diagnosed with Dementia 18 months ago; when I got on the phone to my father he stated that he didn’t believe that my mother had made these nasty and toxic comments to me and that he basically gave me an ultimatum that we were to go up and see them before his birthday to which I replied I don’t know if I can – you see there are triggers that are activated as a result of discussions with them and it is important that I first and foremost look after myself for self-preservation purposes – this is to say that the event will or will not happen it is just saying that I am having a difficult time processing and healing and that is OK to step back and look after me first and foremost so that if I choose to go up I have something genuine to give.
Whilst obviously there is more to this story than can be shared in this article there are some lessons in terms of behaviour patterns, coping strategies, self-care and the impact chronic medical conditions can have on us as carers personally and professionally.
In retrospect it is easy to see the changes in behaviour patterns of those who have been diagnosed with chronic medical conditions but when you are living in the moment and trying to cope on a day by day basis to process a myriad of information, thoughts, feelings, impacts etc it is hard to see the forest through the trees.
In short, the diagnosis of a chronic or terminal medical condition in an aging or elderly parent will change your life significantly there is no way around it; it is more than likely that you will experience a range of emotions from the initial grief and loss stage (after diagnosis) to conflicts around balancing the needs of your parents with your personal and career needs over a short or longer period of time;
The effect of caring for an aging or elderly parent(s) with a chronic or terminal medical condition may include but not be limited to: –
- Anger or Frustration
- Behavioural differences
- Comfort eating or drinking e.g. drinking more caffeine to stay awake
- Depression or Anxiety
- Feeling overwhelmed, tired, exhausted, pushed and pulled in multiple directions
- Grief and Loss
- Headaches, muscle aches and pains
- Lack of sleep or broken sleep
- Memory recall issues – difficulty remembering things
- Seeking escapism
- Stress or chronic stress
When you add this additional stress to an already full life of work responsibilities, study, raising a family of your own, been a loving partner, managing businesses and the general ups and downs of life it is easy to see how this new dimension could possibly impact your career for example you may: –
- Become less productive and efficient on the job
- Become more accident prone thereby increasing your risk of workplace injuries or accident of self or others
- Cease full time work and start your own business to allow more flexibility
- Consciously or subconsciously stall your career by not taking on additional responsibilities or opportunities
- Disengage from colleagues and professional networks
- Display atypical behavioural patterns
- Find it hard to gather and articulate your thoughts or ideas (verbally or in writing)
- Push yourself harder to counteract days off or decreases in efficiency thus driving you to burnout
- Reduce your work hours or number of days you work to cope with the demands of caring
On the other hand you may also be inspired to create or implement new systems or projects in the workplace to provide support structures to colleagues going through similar life changing situation such as the implementation of an EAP program; or you may find yourself inspired to change your career altogether and go after that dream occupation – because at the end of the day this situation has caused you to evaluate your happiness or purpose in life and now you have had this ah ha moment it is difficult to go back to the hum drum.
In short, it is my perception that the impacts of caring for an aging or elderly parent with a chronic or terminal conditional will fundamentally change you; how you cope with this will be determinant on a few factors including but not limited to: –
- The length of projected care i.e. is this condition a slow degenerative progression or a more aggressive condition
- Your personality type
- Your preferred coping strategies
- The role you naturally take on or are compelled to take on give your position within the family
- What you are willing to do versus what you are not willing to do – your boundaries and limitations that you establish, negotiate and review overtime
Regardless of the medical condition your aging or elderly parent has been diagnosed with and also regardless of the above factors the most important thing from ones perspective is when confronted with the diagnosis of a chronic or terminal medical condition in an aging-elderly parent is to ensure that you have a strong support network including family, friends and professionals such as Counsellors, your workplace’s EAP Program, Support Groups, Social or Community Workers and Disability Support.
In closing, life changes in the blink of an eye but the one thing I have learned is that you can understand and apply forgiveness, but it does not take away the impact of negative and toxic comments that fundamentally changes a relationship. Thus, whether you’re the parent, primary carer giver or secondary support structure be careful what you say words have power and you can never take back what was said. Thus, from my perspective, look at the worst-case scenario and prepare for this in order to minimise heartache. Thus, from the get go: –
- Be prepared
- Establish a self-care plan early on – maintain and regularly review as needed
- Identify and explore parameters, choices and consequences; obtain as much information as possible so that you are informed, can make and clearly articulate your needs, wants, limitations and boundaries
- Talk to your Human Resource Manager/Department or Employer – be open and honest, discuss options and strategies before it comes to the clinch
- Make use of any EAP Service programs your employer offers
- When you are feeling overwhelmed, restless, scared, anxious, depressed, feeling flat etc after hours make use of telephone counselling services such as Life Line 13 11 14 or NSW Mental Health Hotline – 1800 011 511
- Look after your general health and well-being – exercise regularly, eat small quality meals and get plenty of exercise; remember it is ok to break away and remove yourself from the situation for self-preservation
- Look into respite care options if need be
- Seek help early from professional support structures such as counsellors and charitable medical association whom provide counselling services – they can help you through the process
- Realise that as the supporter you will need support too; don’t be a hero, take time for you, make time for friends and family (your children, partner and pets if you have any); it’s ok to escape from time to time to recharge the batteries and rejuvenate
- Get out side in the fresh air and kick the stink out of your system take a walk on the beach or in the bush or do some gardening– spending time in nature is a great healer and will allow you to clear your mind – one of my favourite things to do to chill out
- Learn to say No and not feel guilty – you have a right to your life too; learn to be more assertive
- Learn relaxation and mindfulness techniques e.g. visualisation, meditation there are heaps of free recordings on YouTube and the internet in general.
Finally, if you are struggling with your career as a result of caring for a parent(s) with chronic or terminal medical conditions reach out to a Career Counsellor, like me, who has experienced similar situation and talk to them, sometimes a neutral person who has been through a similar period can provide support and strength in a way that others who have not experienced this can-not. Remember, it is not a sign of weakness to reach out and ask for help – in fact it is a sign of maturity, great strength and courage.
Looking for practical Career Planning Hints, Tips and Strategies to explore and launch your career after caring for your loved one – check out our article – Career Planning for Carers.
Author: Katherine J Foster – Career Development Specialist and Counsellor – 9th April 2018
About Author: – Katherine is the Founder of Blu Ripples a specialist Career Counselling and Consulting practice located in Port Stephens NSW. Katherine is a nationally registered Career Development Specialist and Counsellor; is a Professional Member of the Career Development Association of Australia, Member of the Australian Counselling Association of Australia and Australian Association for Psychological Type. Katherine has worked in private practice since 2003 and prior to that worked in the corporate sector for a period of 12 years predominantly in Human Resources and Administration.