Should we get time off to care for our parents as well as our kids?

In my last job I managed a group of dedicated women. Two had kids in primary school. One was a ‘childless’ woman in her late 40s.

The mums had demanding roles and demanding kids, so there was flexibility for them to stagger working hours, work from home and generally do what they needed to do to keep their families functioning.

My ‘childless’ employee was a tireless worker and generous soul, but she had aging parents and quite a bit of responsibility for helping them out, especially when serious illness hit her father.

If I granted the Mums flexibility, why not the carers? Image: iStock.

We tend to associate flexibility in the workplace almost exclusively with parents of young kids. It’s great that the workplace has slowly (and reluctantly) come to terms with the fact that many of their employees have responsibilities for little people.

But it seems to me we pay far less attention to the difficulties faced by workers with parents who are aging and sick.

This is a real problem if we look at how many workers in Australia need to take time away from work to care; in 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 37 per cent of full time primary carers and 33 per cent of part-time primary carers needed time off from paid work to fulfill their caring responsibilities.

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The statistics about who cares for who in our society tell a clear picture.

About one in eight Australians provides unpaid care to a disabled, frail or sick family member.

The vast majority of these carers are women; 70 per cent of primary carers are women and 56 per cent of carers overall. The peak times when women are required to care for a frail or sick family member are the late 30s to early 60s, when these women may also be raising kids and almost certainly doing some kind of paid work.

With the number of Australians over the age of 65 set to double by 2050, we are looking at more women doing more caring work for more elderly people.

We think it’s hard to find childcare for kids. Try finding in-home or decent aged care in a hurry for a parent who can no longer cope.


Pile onto this the fact that while there is stress and difficulty looking after little kids, there is so, so much joy.

Not so when your mum has had a stroke or has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Or your recently widowed dad is losing the plot, forgetting to eat or pay the electricity bill. No one throws you a ‘your mum can’t get up the stairs anymore on her own’ party or gives you a gift because you finally won the argument with your dad that its time to consider retirement living.

The majority of carers need time off work. Image: iStock.

Sometimes even the most understanding employer can’t help when a woman is required to do so much caring for frail parents.

A friend of mine just started a new job when her father’s health declined rapidly.

“Mum wasn’t coping. He was insisting on staying at home. Things got so bad we finally convinced him to go to hospital. There was daily drama and Mum needed me as much as Dad did.

"My brother was interstate, my sister overseas. It fell to me. I remember telling my sister, ‘if this keeps up with dad I’ll have to quit, I can’t go on’.”

While her employer was understanding and flexible about her predicament, my friend felt as if she wasn’t doing her best in her new job and was worried what would happen if her father returned home and required in home care ongoing. How she could even continue to turn up each day, given the support she would need to provide?

(Again, the statistics show that it may well be easier for full time carers to leave the labour force altogether; the 2012 ABS research showed that well over half of primary carers (around 58 per cent) were not working at all.)

My view, when I was managing my team, was simple. My ‘childless’ employee deserved all the understanding and flexibility afforded to my employees with kids, perhaps even more so.

Compassion and flexibility at work shouldn’t be reserved for parents. Adult children need it too.

Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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