In the blink of an eye, author Liz O’Donnell went from speaking out on the challenges faced by working mothers to losing sleep as a working daughter caring for her terminally ill mother and father in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In today’s episode Liz shares what she learned juggling the competing demands of work and family life during her crash course in eldercare, and we follow up on her recent article in The Atlantic magazine: “The Crisis Facing America’s Working Daughters,” which examines the hidden, often ignored troubles of working mothers with aging parents. Tune in for a spirited conversation.

For tons of tips and resources, check out Liz’s website: Working Daughter

Music: “Pre-Vertex (Limited Functionality Is My New Jam)” by Lee Rosevere | CC BY NC SA



JANA PANARITES (HOST) – There are now more than 40 million Americans age 65 or older, and by the year 2013. That number is expected to grow to 72 million, or one in five Americans. Let’s put those figures alongside a recent study done by the Families and Work Institute which tracks changes in the US workforce over the years. The study revealed that in addition to having parental responsibilities 46% of women in the workforce also have significant eldercare responsibilities. So how did these women juggle the competing demands of work, parenting and eldercare? Well, we’re going to explore those issues today with my guest. I’m so excited to welcome Liz O’Donnell. She works in public relations, and is also raising two children with her husband outside of Boston.

JANA – Liz is passionate about the advancement of women in the workplace in Washington and in their local communities. In 2009, she founded the award winning blog, Hello Ladies to deliver useful and actionable news and information to smart, busy women interested in career politics, work life balance and leadership. Liz is also the author of “Mogul, Mom and Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman,” and her writing has been featured in the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe magazine, the Tampa Tribune and several other media outlets. She recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic magazine titled, “The Crisis Facing America’s Working Daughters.” Liz O’Donnell, welcome to the podcast.

LIZ – Thank you so much for having me.

JANA – In your piece for the Atlantic, you make the point that while working moms have “an endless stream of resources to guide and comfort them,” a working mother who’s also caring for an aging parent is “unseen and widely ignored.” Can you expand on that if you would for our listeners?

LIZ – Sure. I came to this topic actually, right after my book “Mogul, Mom and Maid” came out and I was out on the road doing all kinds of book promotions and speaking engagements. And all of a sudden my parents, who were in their 80s at the time, started to need more and more, and I guess you’d call it irony that here I was going out talking about the challenges that working mothers face and all of a sudden I was, you know, majorly impacted as a working daughter. And I thought, Wow. I was booked one night to keynote a mommy’s night out event for young women who had just recently given birth, you know, so they were parents of babies and toddlers.

LIZ – And I started the day an hour and fifteen minutes from home taking my mother to the doctor, she was late when I got there so we had to move the appointment back, the doctor lit into me that I wasn’t doing enough for my mother. I felt so devastated sitting in his office. I got a flat tire on the way home. Before I left, you know, my dad needed help – he couldn’t figure out how to log on to his computer which, now I know was an early sign of dementia. At the time I didn’t know what was up. And you know, I get home, I’m originally thinking about the speaking engagement, I’m gonna do my hair and put on a pretty dress. I got home, I brush my teeth, I went out and I’m standing in front of all these women talking about, you know, the challenges of early motherhood and in my mind, I’m like, Ladies, you don’t even know what I’ve been through. And I didn’t even know that I would go through this. That is what started it for me.

JANA – Well, let’s back up a minute, then, and tell us about how you grew up and where you grew up.

LIZ – Sure. So I grew up outside of Boston in a town called Dedham. And I’m one of three daughters. My parents moved to Cape Cod. And I actually bought their house. So they were living – it was an hour and fifteen minutes away from me up until recently.

JANA  – Mm hmm. And you wrote in your book that when you were growing up in the 70s, your parents indulged your dreams and [inaudible] you didn’t give a whole lot of thought to work life balance, but eventually, when you did get married, you became the sole breadwinner, which is something that you actually talked about with your husband, before you even had children. So that’s unusual.

LIZ  – Right. Boy, was that a mistake, huh? You know, I mean – and that’s the thing I – you just don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s why I think the conversations that we’re having today about working motherhood and working daughterhood are so important. You know, one of three daughters, my father, you know, raised us all to be whatever we wanted to be and even, you know, in some households where there are sisters and brothers you see sort of a sexism around who does what chores. You know, I made the beds AND cut the lawn. I went to Emerson College in Boston where I did not notice or experience any kind of sexism. And then I started working, and all of a sudden going into the work world, you’re like, Whoa, Why didn’t anyone tell me I need to be a feminist? Like there’s some challenges that we face. And you know, fall in love with a good guy, I’m like, I love working. I’m never going to stop working. And actually, you know, I’m happy with the choice that I made not to be the primary caregiver but you just don’t know what you don’t know. And then caregiving, eldercare is the same thing. You have no idea.

JANA – Uh-huh. Are your parents still living?

LIZ – My father is alive. He’s 89 and he now lives in assisted living two miles away from me. And my mom passed away about 15 months ago, and that was part of the story to which is, I got a call from my sister. I had been traveling for work the weekend that my son’s soccer game, we had all kinds of family activities loaded up for the weekend because I had been away. And I was just really looking forward to relaxing this one weekend and my sister called, she was out-of-state. And she said, Dad’s acting really weird and I was really worried about him. I need you to go down there. So all of a sudden, I ran out of the house on a Sunday to see what was up with my parents. And I didn’t come home for a week. I didn’t come home. I didn’t show up for work for a week. And ultimately, about two weeks later, they were both diagnosed on the same day. He was diagnosed with early stage dementia, and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

JANA – Oh my gosh.

LIZ – So and I think that’s a typical — yeah, it was a pretty pretty intense summer and fall. This was about… it wasn’t last year, but the year before. But I think that’s what we see happens: either as a caregiver, there’s this creep that we talked about, right? The caregiver creep, where you don’t – you know, it starts with some groceries and some doctor’s appointments. And you don’t realize how much you’re taking on, or it hits with the crisis. And then like, bam – you’re in it.

JANA – Mm-hmm. So how did your siblings react? And did they help? Tell me about how your family moved through those major changes.

LIZ – Well, I’ll start by saying this: I’m glad that I’m the one who’s doing the writing. I get to tell the story. Both of my sisters are gifted writers. And I’d be worried if they put their fingers to keyboard because I’m sure they have a very different take on know how the three of us work together. But ultimately, you know, we all work differently. And that’s one of the big learnings that I had. I am very good at logistics. I can manage a crisis from, you know, I had a spreadsheet, at one point my spreadsheet had 125 things that needed to get done because I was moving my parents, you know, into two different facilities and managing two different diagnoses and set the doctors and setting up the phone, and unhooking the phone at home and meeting with eldercare, you know, all that stuff that all of a sudden you just have to do. And I’m really good at that.

LIZ – What I’m not so good at is the feeling part. So, I would get really, really frustrated because my sisters don’t work at the same pace that I work at when it comes to the logistics and the stuff. But ultimately the learning was, they get to approach this however they want. And, you know, eventually I realized, they’re not going to work at the same pace as you. They’re not going to manage tasks the same way you are. Now is not the time to be frustrated by that. Now is not the time to try to change who they are. Now is the time to say, you know what? I’m going to go run these 17 errands. Can you go sit by mom’s side and keep her company? And so you divide and conquer [inaudible]. That’s why I laugh. If they wrote the book they’d say, She was bossy. She’s impatient, and that’s all true. And I’m the youngest, so I’m not supposed to be the bossy one.

JANA – Wow.

LIZ – But I am. Yeah, and I used to say that to my poor mother as she’s lying in hospice: I’m the youngest! This isn’t fair.

JANA – So tell us how your work life was affected by this.

LIZ – Well, and that’s the other thing that was so eye-opening for me, you know, choosing years ago to be the breadwinner and actually always really enjoying my career and work. In a million years, if you ever told me I would step out of the workplace, I wouldn’t have believed you. And that day that I referenced when the doctor lit into me, was the first time in my career that I ever thought, I need to quit, because I can’t manage my work life balance. And I think if you’re a mother, a woman, you know, middle-class means and privilege, you’re going to read some article at some point in the New York Times that tells you the statistics are very you know, in favor that you will want to quit your job when you become a mother. I never had that feeling.  But I remember that was the first of many times sitting in that doctor’s office where he was saying, You don’t call her enough. You should move her in with you. You need to better manage her diet. I just thought this is too much. If I could quit – but I couldn’t because I was the breadwinner – if I could quit I would. So what happened when they were both diagnosed that summer, I ended up working part time.

LIZ – And I’m one of the lucky ones. I work for a company that’s very family friendly. And actually the founder had gone through a similar situation where her mother was diagnosed, and she wanted that flexibility. So I was able to say, you know, next week, I’m going to work all mornings. And the week after that, I think I’m going to be at work all evening. So I was really lucky that I did. You know, use up all of my vacation and all of my sick time, because I couldn’t afford not to work, but I couldn’t get the work done.

JANA – Wow. You were really juggling a lot. And so was your husband taking care of your kids, mostly?

LIZ – And thank God for that. Yes. I mean, I abandoned my family for weeks at a time because there was so much to manage. Of course as a mother, you know, there’s all kinds of guilt that goes with that. You want to be home but you, you’re managing a crisis. But I don’t know how someone else would have done that. And that’s the scary thing. And that’s why we have to have the conversation, right? As you mentioned, the growing numbers of how many people are aging so rapidly in our society. Like, what is the plan? We need to figure out how to make these workers be able to manage both.

JANA – Mm hmm. So when you wrote the book, you weren’t really thinking about the issue of elder care it sounds like.  Right. You focused more on the balancing act of being a spouse, a mom and a working mother. And yet in the course of writing your book, I’m sure that you – that caregiving came up. So between the book and the article, do you have examples of other working daughters who are going through stresses? And what sort of issues have come up for them that maybe didn’t come up for you?

LIZ – Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, I certainly referenced elder care once or twice in the book. I think it was actually Working Mother Institute that had done a study that I referenced in the book that oftentimes women who are taking care of their elderly parents feel even more, I don’t know if discriminated against is the right word, but more marginalized at work than even working parents do. And I think part of it has to do with the fact that we don’t have language about it. We don’t talk about it, typically. You don’t know that other people are going through it. And it’s so unpredictable.

LIZ – When you’re a mother, you know, if you get pregnant, there comes a time, you know, when you’re going to roughly give birth and take maternity leave. And you can set a plan. I mean, most women I know, don’t stick to the plan, right? You know, they might say, I’m coming back full-time. I’m not coming back or there’s often a shift. But there’s some plan, and most women follow the plan at least closely.

LIZ – But with caregiving, you don’t know when you’re going to get that phone call. So I can see how a younger workforce isn’t thinking about this. You know, as Millennials are coming into the workforce and Xers and Boomers were starting to deal with this, these Millennials hadn’t even thought about elder care. And so, Why all of a sudden is Liz not here again? Or why is Liz in the closet taking another personal call? Or why is Liz on hold? Because I’ve been trying to get through insurance. And you know, and the movement, is for these open workspaces. And I always say whoever invented these open workspaces was never a caregiver, because sometimes you have to talk about those things.

JANA – Right.

LIZ – And now I forget what your question was. I apologize.

JANA – No, I was just wondering if you had any recollections of specific examples with people that you spoke with. Anyone that sticks out in your mind that you remembered?

LIZ – Yeah. So there’s a – I think this is interesting. I’m friendly with a woman who I met through blogging. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with the show, “Listen to Your Mother,” but “Listen to Your Mother” is a show that’s produced in I don’t know, 25 to 30 cities around the country and basically, it gives voice to motherhood. So there are local producers in each city and they put on shows around Mother’s Day and they invite women to come and audition to read something they’ve written about motherhood. It could be about having a mother, being a mother, anything around motherhood.

JANA – Are these television shows or radio?

LIZ – No, no, no, they’re live –

JANA  – oh, live events, live performances.

LIZ  – Yeah, live events. Yeah. So I auditioned a few years ago and was in the first Boston “Listen to Your Mother” show, and became family with this producer who’s a blogger who blogs about motherhood. And it wasn’t until I started to do research around working daughters – and I’m actually working on a book on that topic – and interviewed her for the book because someone said, You should talk to this woman, she’s going through something too. And we got on the phone together. So here’s a women I became friends with via our connection as mothers, becuase it never occurred to me that we had a connection as daughters. And her father has Alzheimer’s. And we, you know, experienced some of the same things, and I’m interviewing her and we’re crying, because you know it’s so moving and what she’s going through. And it was so nice to make a connection with someone else who understood. But it never occurred to me to connect with someone or the daughter versus a mother.

JANA  – Yeah. So you’re a sandwich generation mom, but you’re also the main breadwinner. Does your husband help out with your caring responsibilities for your dad? He’s in assisted living, but does he help at all?

LIZ  – He does. He does. And you know, we – there were times, you know, my mother was in hospice, she’d only been given three months to live. It was towards the end but she was hanging on, and this might sound cold but caregivers understand, I was frustrated. I felt like he wasn’t being sensitive. He was frustrated because, you know, ultimately, when we got through that crisis phase and talked, he said he didn’t include me in any work. And I was just, I was moving so fast.

JANA – Yeah.

LIZ  – And and so now, you know, it’s hard because parents are so personal. That sounds like such an obvious statement. Right? But – and they want their own children. My mother loved my husband, but they want, you know, the comfort of their own children, I think when they’re when they’re facing end of life. So most of the time I don’t call on my husband to help with my father. He supports me by taking care of everything else in our life. But if I’m traveling and there’s a doctor’s appointment that I don’t want my dad to miss or it took me a long time, you know, he absolutely does that. And you know, one of the biggest frustrations I have as a caregiver is, if my father hits the wrong button on the remote control he can be without the TV for a month. I don’t understand why someone hasn’t made senior-friendly remote controls. And it’s not intuitive to me, and I’ll say please just drive over to my dad tomorrow afternoon and fix the damned TV.

JANA  – Oh my God, I did that so many times for my mother too, at the Georgetown. She lived at a retirement home in Georgetown. “Can you come over…?” [she would ask me]

LIZ  – It’s crazy-making.

JANA – I know… totally crazy-making. But… so how hard was it to get your dad to move into an assisted living facility?

LIZ  – Well, I mean, there’s always a silver lining to any crisis. If you had told me my father would live in assisted living I, you know, again, sort of like me ever going part time or taking time off of work, I would never in a million years. He’s the guy that’s going to go down with the ship. But it was – originally he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and what happened was, he had a urinary tract infection. So he was showing up really off, and I admitted him to an ER to have him transferred to get an evaluation. And in the ER he tried to leave. So they gave of an anti-psych drug was rendered him just completely incoherent. And, you know, I thought it killed him.

LIZ – When that – when both the infection and the effects of that drug cleared, he sort of returned to his old self. I mean, I, he definitely has early stage dementia, but I don’t believe the Alzheimer diagnosis anymore. So but at the time, they told me, he’s never going to live on his own again, he needs to be in a memory care unit. So I moved him into a locked memory care unit. And then as the infection and the drug war off, he said to me, What am I doing here? Why am I here? And I think the doctors and the other people who were involved in this care team, when I said I don’t think he has Alzheimer’s, I think they just saw a daughter in denial. They probably hear this all the time. But I stayed with it. And that’s a lesson, right? That we know our families better than anybody else. And I stayed with and I advocated, and so he was one of the first residents at this memory care unit who was transferred from the memory care unit to the assisted living apartment, where normally goes the other way around.

LIZ – So luckily, the staff, you know, the staff worked with me on a transition and we moved him. But I guess, long answer is if my mom hadn’t been two miles down the road in a hospice, and if he hadn’t got to that facility in such an icky way, he never would have, we probably never would have got him there. So there’s a silver lining in everything.

JANA – How did he get the urinary tract infection?

LIZ – Here’s the thing. So my mother was always more open to asking for our help, my sisters and I. And I managed my mother’s meds, and I hired a nurse to help her sort her pills. She had had brain cancer 20 years prior to when she passed, she had had heart surgery, so she was on quite a few medications. And it gets overwhelming.

LIZ – So I had hired a nurse who came in every two weeks just to sort her meds, and I hired home health aide because at one point she had a bad fall and she was on a walker, and stopped driving. So I had a home health aide come in and do chores around the house, take her shopping, that sort of thing. My dad never wanted any help. And he seemed so competent and capable that we never got involved really in his healthcare. And so as my mom started to get sicker, she stopped being able to handle all that stuff for him. So it turns out, you know, my father was getting sicker and sicker, and some of his prescription meds had run out and nobody knew because we were so focused on my mother. So he was off his medications. And I would assume that’s probably what led to it. I don’t know exactly, but…

JANA  – Wow, that is just… I never would have predicted – from a urinary tract infection to anti-psychotics. I mean, that’s just, that’s crazy.

LIZ  – There’s a there’s a woman here in Boston named Jan Benvenuti and she runs an organization called Circle of Life. I actually hired her to help me sort through my crisis when I was in the middle of it, and she wrote a book called, “Please Don’t Give Up On Me.” And it was about her experience with taking care of both of her parents. And she had a similar experience in the book. So you know, having read the book, now I understand what we went through and how it worked. But again, you know, podcasts like this one and the conversation we’re having are so helpful, because who talks about any of this stuff until you know, people like you came onto the scene?

JANA  – So are your sisters – remind me, are they nearby?

LIZ  – One is local, and one is out-of-state.

JANA  – One is out-of-state. Okay. And during the time that you had this family crisis, it sounds like you were doing most of the heavy lifting. Correct me if I’m wrong. But in what ways did they participate?

LIZ  – Well, I think my sister [inaudible] also would say she was doing just as much heavy lifting. Because everybody does things to their ability, right?

JANA  – Right.

LIZ  – She was missing a lot of work. She was at the hospice home, you know, all the time. I just think I was doing more of the task-related stuff. And she was doing more of the sitting by your side.

JANA  – The emotional stuff. Okay, I got it.

LIZ  – Yeah, you know there were moments where, you know, I wanted to wring both of their necks and certainly you know my sister who was long distance – believe me, I know they feel they the same way, so I’m not speaking too out of turn. But my sister who was long-distance would sometimes say, you don’t know how hard this is for me, I’m long distance, and I’d just want to come through the phone, like – how hard it is for you? You get to go to sleep at night in your own bed. I’m sleeping in a chair at hospice. You know, you can you get to show up at work. I don’t get to do any of those things. Again, when I started interviewing other caregivers for the book that I’m working on and meeting long-distance caregivers, I think that’s it’s hard to see it when you’re in the moment. But I think we really do need to be sensitive to the fact that long-distance caregivers have very real challenges. And local caregivers have very different real challenges and we need to find a way to show some compassion and understanding for those, too.

JANA  – Mm-hmm. A lot of long distance caregivers feel intense guilt and missing out. It’s tough no matter how you slice it. There’s really no easy answer.

LIZ  – And that’s the thing. I mean, we all need to… we need to feed ourselves and work and there’s only so much time off. It’s hard.

JANA  – Yeah. So what role do you see the media as playing in this conversation?

LIZ  – I think the media can play a very important role. And not just mainstream media, but even bloggers, you know, when you look at in between, maybe roughly 2004 and now, how many women started blogging about motherhood, and how much they exposed the challenges, created community for mothers, gave mothers a safe place to say, you know, I’m going crazy, whatever it might be. I’m starting to see more of that crop up in the blogosphere around caregiving, certainly podcasts and many blogs. Lots of it popping up in the podcast world. So I think non-traditional media is going to play a big role in giving voice to this. Traditionally, I don’t think the mainstream media has done enough. And my frustration always was when I would either go searching – usually at 3am, you know, when you can’t sleep you’re so stressed out, guilt-ridden – and I’d go looking for resources online. And even in conversations that I’ve had with people, I felt like people would always say, oh, how wonderful what a gift that you’re able to do this for your parents. And inside I’m thinking, it’s not a gift. It’s a nightmare.

LIZ – And ultimately, there is a gift. And I think there’s a lot of studies on this idea of the caregiver gain. Well- documented but not well-promoted that, you know, there’s incredible benefit, both physical, mental and emotional well-being to have cared for someone at such an important, vulnerable time in their life. But the reality of it, day-to- day? It’s really hard. And so when you meet people, or every story went to that said, you know, Oh, isn’t that wonderful – what a gift. You just felt so unvalidated or unheard and unsupported.

JANA – Well, it’s also a really convenient way to avoid the larger issues and the practical complications around that, and to sort of, you know… I sort of compare it to saying, “thank you for your service” to war veterans. You know, I mean, it’s a way of getting out of a very difficult discussion. And it’s well-meaning, but it’s, it’s not helpful.

LIZ  – It’s not an easy topic to think about.

JANA  -It’s really not.

LIZ  – You don’t want to think about it. Again, I keep going back to motherhood versus daughterhood. Motherhood, you’re bringing a new life into the world and, you know, babies – what surrounds babies, are hopes for the future. In daughterhood, you’re helping someone exit the world. Nobody wants to think about that. And the typical caregiver, you know, is a 48-year-old woman. And I know I felt this way sometimes, but I kept thinking once I’m through this phase of my life, I’m going to need a caregiver. So you’re not only looking at losing a parent, which is kind of an earth-shattering experience, you’re also facing your own mortality and you’re getting an up-close look… I, you know, wish I hadn’t seen some of the things I’ve seen. It’s a little scary. So it’s not like it’s a conversation people want to have at a cocktail party.

JANA  – Certainly not. Maybe at a conference.

LIZ  – Right.

JANA  – But not at a cocktail party. Yeah, but a lot of people who work in the field of aging who are sort of at the forefront of real change, are trying to reframe this conversation in terms of an opportunity. So it’s an opportunity for us to really re-examine what it means to age in this country. I mean, we’re on this long journey, and it can be great at every stage. But not if we shrink away from the challenges. We’re going to age no matter what. So –

LIZ  – hopefully, right?

JANA  – Hopefully, exactly. Hopefully. Talk about the political – what you’d like to see more of in the political sphere and that sort of thing.

LIZ  – To me, the most important legislation that I’m aware of right now is the, you know, the paid lead legislation that’s happening state-by-state, and making sure that paid leave is viewed not just as a parental issue, first of all, not just as a mother issue, but a mother and a father, and then not just as a parental issue but as a family issue. I mentioned this in the Atlantic article that Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, just signed something, I think, at the end of 2015, about parental leave, and that’s a paid lead, and that’s fantastic, but it’s only for workers who are parents, not for workers who have parents. And so we need to make sure that elder care is a part of all those conversations around workplace flex – around reentering the workforce.

LIZ – When you come back from burying a parent and maybe having been bedside during a death, and you’re grieving and you need to re-enter the workforce and it’s brutal. So, how, you know, not only how are we helping women ramp back on after taking time off with the baby, how are we helping people ramp back on after being through this sort of, you know, life-shaking moment.  And the other thing I’d say around politics is I’m really disappointed that there hasn’t been more discussion in this election cycle. I know Hillary Clinton has proposed a credit for family caregivers and I think that’s fantastic. But unless I’m missing something I, you know, I try to watch as many debates as I can, it’s not a conversation that’s coming up right now. And that’s too bad.

JANA – Mm hmm. We should say for our listeners that the current federal Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers 12 weeks of job protected but unpaid leave for a serious health condition or birth or caring for a family member with a serious health condition, but it doesn’t cover businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and it protects your job, but the pay is voluntary. So it’s good in some ways, but it falls far short of what we need. I do know that there are three states that have paid family leave laws: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and they fund it with mandatory payroll contributions from the workers. So you know, it’s going to go, it’s going to be a state-by-state thing. But you’re right. I completely agree with you. The candidates aren’t talking about it enough.  And I say this over and over again, but they’re all way past retirement age. Well, not way past, but they’re all – when one of them gets sworn in, they’re going to be well past retirement age. And it’s an issue that affects them. And I’m not quite sure, given that fact, that they aren’t discussing it given given that it does affect them. Perhaps it’s because they’re speaking for from such privileged positions. I just don’t know, I think, you know, we have a pathological fear of aging in this country. And it prevents us from addressing these issues in a really healthy way.

LIZ  – I believe there’s a movement to revamp FMLA, if I’m correct. I haven’t dove that much into it. But you’re right. I mean, Family Medical Leave Act is helpful, and it’s there, but I would suspect the majority of Americans aren’t working at Fortune, you know, whatever hundred companies. Most of us you’ll find in small businesses. And so there are real challenges to the FMLA to be able to take advantage of it. The number of employees, like you said, I believe employees so many miles away from, you know, from a headquarter office… and also your length of time. So it’s good that we have it, but there’s much more that we could do.

JANA  – What, if anything, did you discover in the course of your research about how women leaving the workforce affects employers?

LIZ  – Well, I think the statistic that I quote in the Atlantic article comes from Met Life, if I remember correctly, and they calculate that women lose, on average about $344,000 in compensation as a result of the time they take off to deal with caregiving issues. And that number was very similar to the cost to employees because of attrition and absenteeism. And I think another very real danger for employees is presenteeism: so I’m showing up for work, but my head is not in the game. And so I understand that small businesses, health care costs are outrageous. And flexibility can be difficult to implement. But I just can’t see this as anything but good business because 10,000 people turning 65 every day, most of your workers are going to be impacted by caregiving at some point. So Isn’t it just smart business to guide these employees through this and maintain them? Have them in a situation to come back, or give them some space? And this goes for – and I talk a lot about this in Mogul, Mom and Maid, for working parents, that mothers I say, and this goes, this is true for daughters and sons too, but we walk around with this invisible task list. It’s a list of stuff, like I mentioned, like invisible –

JANA  [overlapping] – invisible what?

LIZ  – Invisible tasks. That might be like, you know, make sure I register them for soccer, and do they have you know, cleats that fit and just the stuff that you don’t get a lot of credit for doing, but it’s playing in your head all the time. And I’d say the same goes for sons and daughters, right? It’s: call the VA and find out how that claim is pending. And find out why the blood lab keeps billing me when my father has three insurances, you know – for example.

JANA  – Oh, yeah.

LIZ  – Yeah. And so we need to give employees the space at work to do some of this, because life seeps into work and vice versa. There’s no on and off switch, you know, it starts at nine and ends at five. And I think businesses that give employees space to get personal stuff done during the day are more likely not to have to suffer from this presenteeism and these hidden costs.

JANA  – Well, let me ask you about your husband’s parents. Are they still living?

LIZ  – Yes. In fact, right after I sort of got through the crisis phase, after my mom passed away and my dad was doing well and settled, my mother-in-law had a stroke. She’s doing really well. But all of a sudden, you know, my husband and his sisters were running out of the house into the hospital and trying to figure out a plan, and they’re starting to have the conversation: can we get her to leave the house? We think she’d do better in the community. So I think it’s just, it’s dominoes.

JANA  – Mm-hmm. Is she a widow?

LIZ  – No, but my father-in-law lives in another state. We don’t hear from him as much.

JANA  – Okay. Okay. So he may have learned a few things from you, though – your husband – in the course of caring for your folks.

LIZ  – I hope so.

JANA  – I mean, it’s how we learn. We learn from each other. We’re not getting any guidance from the government. And I’m not one of these people who says the government has to do everything, but we’re really not getting much in the way of guidance from our political leaders, our politicians. I’m not even gonna say political leaders, because…

LIZ  – Because they’re not leading.

JANA  – They’re fundraising, basically.

LIZ  – That’s their job, unfortunately.

JANA  – Yeah, right, exactly. So they’re, so we’re really learning a lot of things from each other. Did you have financial challenges as well, going through this time with your parents?

LIZ  – You know, I didn’t. But in the beginning, I didn’t know if I did or not. So in the beginning, I was so terrified to spend money because I didn’t have – my husband had been paying my parents bills, you know, managing all of their bills for a long time. So he had some visibility, but there’s some digging required to find out just exactly how much they have and what the run rate is going to be. And I was spending a lot of money at first, and that had me very stressed out.

LIZ – So for example, so we, you know, sent my dad to the ER, he was transferred to the hospital, my mom’s on a walker, we don’t want her to be alone. So we put her in a 30-day respite care at an assisted living on Cape Cod, where she was living. A few days later, she was transferred to the emergency room and then up to Boston, where they diagnosed ovarian cancer. A few days later, they discharged her. You know, you can take her home. Like, where?You know, I stopped by on my lunch hour and they’re like, Oh, take your mom home. Where? You know, my house isn’t set up for this. I haven’t had this conversation with my husband. She lives an hour and a half away. Like, where am I supposed to put her? So, we put her back in the respite care for a bit, and then I was moving them both into, you know, separate apartments, because she was going into assisted living, and then eventually hospice. He was going into memory care. So I left a lot of money on the table, if you will, you know, breaking leases and moving them.

LIZ – And my mom only made it in assisted living a few weeks when we moved here to hospice. And that was really stress-inducing, because I just didn’t know how much you know – I was lucky my mother did such an amazing job managing her money. And she – once I found all the folders and the paperwork, she had everything ready for me, which I think is the greatest gift that parents can give us and we can give younger generations, is to have it all organized. But it was you know, I went to an elder care attorney and I paid a big fee. But I think every penny was worth it, because I hired that woman Jan Benvenuit at Circle of Life, and that was probably – I always saying, Jan, you are the best money I have ever spent, it was the best value. And I once found a brand new pair of Prada designer boots in a thrift shop for $40. And I’m comparing her to that. It was a better value than that.

JANA  – Wow, that says a lot.

LIZ  – It’s a big compliment. So I had stress, but it turns out, you know, it wasn’t warranted, which is a great thing. But that’s very real for people. People are shelling out money. It’s just costing people to be caregivers.

JANA  – And it’s so dependent on what your resources are. Whether your parents have resources, whether you have resources, whether you qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, whether you can even get into Medicaid. Whether you spend down, I mean there’s just so much to consider in the midst of going through a very emotional experience, where money is the last thing you really want to think about. But of course, you have to think about it.

LIZ  – And I think you nailed it, it’s that figuring all this out is difficult. I mean some of these websites, especially the government websites, are circular. You know, click here to learn about Medicare, and then you click there and then it clicks you back. And usually we’re accessing these websites and these resources in a time of crisis,when we’re tired and we’re stressed out. So that was- I think that would be some learning too, is, if you have parents, you can pretty much predict that at some point, you’ll be a caregiver. Nobody likes to plan for crisis. And nobody likes to think about end of life, but those who do are going to be so ahead of the game.

JANA  – Have you thought about how you would like to spend your later years after this experience with your parents?

LIZ  – Yeah, of course. It’s hard not to. Like, I said to my high school girlfriend, because one of them has, her mother is in the same assisted living. So I live in the town I grew up in and, in fact, I run into high school people all the time who have parents at the assisted living. And so I said to that, you know, the five girls I was closest with in high school, I said, let’s make a pact. Let’s move in. Let’s dump the guys. We’ll all have apartments, we’ll eat dinner together, we’ll drink wine at night together.

LIZ – Here’s what I think: I think that our parents came from a different generation and you know, assisted living wasn’t as readily available and, you know, there was real pressure to bring your parents into your home. But the other thing is, our parents’ parents probably weren’t sick as long, right? There’s way more medicine and drugs and advancements that’re keeping people alive a lot longer. Now we, a lot of my generation I find, are wracked with guilt dealing with moving their parents out of home. You know, do I let them age at home? Do I move them into my home? Do I move them into a facility? So I think this is, you know, we’re sort of the first generation seeing that assisted living and some of these facilities can be a wonderful way of life. I think that’s going to make an impact.

JANA – Yeah, if you can afford it. And you can find one you that is reputable.

LIZ  – If you can afford it. Right. You know what’s hard is, sometimes I feel like I’m violating my father’s privacy by sharing all of his challenges and medical issues. But I don’t know how you paint the truth, right? Without sharing that. I don’t know if that ever comes up for you.

JANA – Absolutely. Well, I think that’s one of the main reasons that also caregivers are reluctant to get help. We might feel like we’re betraying a trust by talking about these things. Or we might think we can do it all on our own, and that we don’t need help. But, how’s your dad doing now?

LIZ – He’s actually doing really. It’s so funny – I was just out at lunch, a work lunch, and I always kind of judged people who kept their cell phones on the table, like, Put your phone away, you know. And I also, as a mother I have that luxury because I know the school will call my husband. But since becoming a caregiver, my phone is out all the time. And sure enough, I got up and went to ladies and I came back and I saw, you know, a call from dad and like, Oh my god, excuse me – and my heart stops for a second. And he was calling to tell me that – he had given me his electric razor the other day, I went up there and he said it wasn’t working – and could I look at it. And he was calling to tell me it wasn’t the razor, it’s the outlet in his room. And my father is a former electrician, and so he was going to figure out how to break into the electrical circuit board. And I’m not kidding, he will. I mean, he’s been caught trying to hack a fax system and break into the maintenance closet and got in trouble during that historic snowfall we had last winter because he was going out and shoveling. He didn’t think they did a good enough job. So he’s doing really well. I’m just hoping they don’t kick him out, because I’m not taking him in.

JANA – Oh my God. How old are your kids?

LIZ – My kids are 11 and 13.

JANA  – 11 and 13?

LIZ – 13-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl. And they have to – my son has a volunteer requirement, because he’s in the National Junior Honor Society, and so he volunteers at the assisted living facility, he helps [inaudible]. So that’s been really nice. And my daughter once, after my mom had a fall, her bad fall, and she broke her nose and it was horrible. And it was summer, so I brought the kids down and we stayed at my mom’s for a while. And my daughter said to me, she was probably about 7 or 9 at the time, and she said, Mom how come you go in the bathroom every time Nana goes in the bathroom? And she went, Oh, you have to help her? And I said, Yeah, you know she’s really hurt after this fall and can’t risk her falling in the bathroom and you, it’s difficult. And she goes (sucks in her breath), Not me. Thanks. (laughs). So it was her way of telling me she won’t be helping me. I’m gonna be relying on myself.

JANA  – She told you that she wasn’t gonna do that for you?

LIZ  – No, that I could call on her brother to do it. (both laugh)

JANA  – So how do you feel about getting older?

LIZ  – It’s a little scary having seen it up close. I won’t lie. At the same time, I think there is incredible freedom, you know, that comes with, you know, not caring about certain things anymore. And I think when you are a caregiver and you are with someone as, you know, they move towards the end of your life, you get really crystal clear about what matters and what doesn’t. And so that’s a gift. My motto through all of this became… well, I took it from a Robert Frost quote. He used a lot more words and was a lot more eloquent, I don’t remember the exact quote, but I distilled it down to: the only way through is through. There’s no going around this issue. It probably will happen to you and as hard as it is, you just need to go through the center, and you will come out the other side.

JANA – All right. Well, Liz O’Donnell, thanks so much for being on the show. She’s the author of “Mogul, Mom and Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman” and, recently, of an article in the February issue of the Atlantic magazine, and you can visit her blog at Liz, thanks so much for being on the show. I really appreciate your time and your insight.

LIZ – Thank you.