Changing family dynamics changes career choices - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Changing family dynamics changes career choices

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Should I have children now or embark on a career and start a family later?

In years past, that was the question numerous women asked themselves at a time when more and more women traded in aprons, vacuums and 5 o'clock meals for work attire and a desk.

That question has evolved yet again from choosing between a family or career to choosing between staying in a career or leaving that career to care for aging and sick parents, or some other unexpected life event. It's a struggle recently seen in West Virginia's political arena, playing a part in some women's decisions to leave office or a campaign.

Jane Marks, who recently retired from her long-standing position as executive director of the Alzheimer's Association, West Virginia Chapter, in order to take care of her aging mother, said there are several contributing factors to this shift in dynamic.

Parents living longer

According to Marks, one reason for the changing dynamic is women are opting to start a career earlier and have children later. Perhaps the biggest reason, however, is that parents are living longer, largely because of the advancements in medical science. But just because “medical science has done a great job of keeping us alive longer,” doesn't mean the ability to function independently is a guarantee, Marks said.

Although her mother currently resides in an assisted living facility, Marks is still her mother's primary overseer, making sure she receives necessary treatment and is provided the best environment.

Just because a loved one may reside in an assisted living facility or receives 24-hour care by professional caregivers, “that doesn't mean you don't have to oversee their care,” Marks said.

“It's a full-time job. My mother has special needs,” she said. “I get her special snacks and food.”

In addition to making sure her mother has all her favorite snacks and food, Marks also sees to her mother's social life, making sure to visit as often as possible and that her mother is involved in social activities within the assisted living facility.

Learning to prioritize

One of Marks' biggest pieces of advice to people juggling work, marriage, children, grandchildren and taking care of aging parents is to prioritize.

Recently, Marks said she had to take something off her plate after realizing “you just can't do it all.”

After working a full day at the Alzheimer's Association, Marks said she would go see her mother at night, leaving little time to connect with her husband. Marks, whose children are grown, also found out she would be a first-time grandmother.

For two years, Marks said she “thought about what to give up” and hearing she was going to be a grandmother is what helped her finally decide.

After deciding her marriage, being there for her daughter's delivery and caring for her mother were the most important things, Marks offered up her job to the sacrificial altar.

“You have to think about what's the most important to you,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., currently running for U.S. Senate, said balance is about focusing on one day at a time while juggling career and unexpected life issues, such as caring for aging parents.

Capito said both her parents are aging and need help, so “prioritizing family needs is number one for me.”

Taking care of aging parents takes time and energy, and it's important to establish a supportive network, she said. While there are only so many hours in a day to accomplish a long to-do list, Capito said it's important to focus on the positives, what one is able to get done, learn to streamline and reschedule when the need arises.

“You can't do it all at once,” she said.

Capito said having two siblings and working as part of a three-person team also helps to ease the number of necessary responsibilities.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who also is in the race for U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket, also said she relies on the sibling support system.

Tennant said she and her other six siblings take shifts when it comes to checking on their father who still lives by himself on Tennant's childhood farm.

Although Tennant describes her father as “pretty self-sufficient,” she also said someone checks on him every day. Even with her daily phone calls, Tennant said she still goes through “worries every day about (her) dad.”

Tennant said she worries about him falling and about making sure he's eating and getting enough to drink during hot days working outside.

When she is home with her father, Tennant said she helps to be sure he's keeping up with his hygiene, cuts his hair and makes sure to cook something so he'll have a meal ready to eat for the next day or two.

Whenever she travels, Tennant said she always makes it a point to try and get home to see her father.

What to expect

When it comes to caring for aging parents, all three women said it is an emotionally difficult situation and establishing a support network is vital. Also important—acknowledging when you need help.

Despite working directly with caregivers and reading all the books and stories, Marks said “it's harder than you think it's going to be.”

She describes a “sandwich caring” scenario — sandwiched between careers, children, spouses and the new role of caring for an aging parent or two.

Not only is an individual overseeing the life and well-being of his or her aging parents, but also trying to oversee his or her own life and responsibilities as well.

“It's managing two lives at the same time,” Marks said.

Also emotionally difficult is the role reversal for a child, she said, particularly when it comes to the physical care that has to be administered.

She explained how our parents teach us to talk, walk, eat with utensils and “go on the big boy or girl toilet,” and who mended the numerous scrapes, cuts and bruises that all young children acquire. As young adults, it was our parents who listened to our concerns, frustrations and problems and offered the kind of parental advice that only comes from having experienced it first themselves.

When caring for an aging parent, the person who always cared for you becomes someone who needs caring for.

Not generational

One of the things Marks said she has noticed is that taking care of aging parents is not “about a generation.”

College students and individuals as young as 18 years old are assuming the role of their parents' caregivers, she said.

When it comes to deciding the best avenue of care, Marks said assistant living facilities, private caregivers or having the parents live in the home are some of the many options; it all just depends on whether a home is suited for parental live-in, the severity of whatever ailment the parent may have and the degree of care required, she said.

According to Marks, it's an issue that faces not only women, but also men. With more women working, men are more often called in to lend an extra lending hand.

More information about Marks, her personal experience, testimonies and advice on how to cope with caregiving can be found on her website, sandwichcaring.com.