How to Balance Work, Life & Caring for Elderly Parents: A Technologist’s Guide to Staying (Somewhat) Sane

Kris Lescinsky and her parents sitting in a garden.In 2017, I decided to return to graduate school, enrolling in the Enterprise Architecture graduate certificate program at Penn State. My education is primarily in business and economics, but I have worked in information technology for most of my career.  I considered my professional obligations and the requirements of a rigorous graduate program, took a deep breath and enrolled.  I was sure I could balance work and school for a year.  We don’t have children and our cats are reasonably low maintenance.  If I’d listened closely I probably would have heard the fates laughing.  My husband was supportive, encouraging me to investigate the program, sign up and stick to it when I was buried in deadlines and research projects – consuming a ridiculous amount of take out without complaint and literally putting dinner on my desk during seemingly never-ending group project sessions.  

Work-life balance looks different for everyone.  I’m a meticulous planner.  I knew a large migration project was coming and timed my graduate school program to be completed before the most demanding part of the project began.  I didn’t consider my parents and how much they would need from me or the logistics of supporting them remotely.   I now reside in Texas and they remained in Pennsylvania.  My father suffered from multiple serious health issues and was declining faster than anyone realized.  In the brief period between enrollment and the start of classes, I flew home twice on short notice.  During the second visit I surprised Mom at her retirement party one day, then signed Dad into a nursing home the following afternoon, triggering an avalanche of legal and financial paperwork that felt like another full-time job. 

Slowly I began to realize that many of the skills I needed to regain my balance were the same skills I used at work.  In my professional role, I use technology to solve problems and help people collaborate.  I started to consider how technology could help me be present more often and be more efficient in sharing information. Here are some tips I learned to help those who may also be juggling life and ‘parenting a parent’:

Get FMLA in Place

Establishing intermittent FMLA leave protected my job and allowed me to fly home on short notice when necessary.  Talk to your manager and your human resources department. I was fortunate to have supportive management.  One morning I received an urgent call from home during my 7 AM meeting; by mid-afternoon I was on a flight to Pittsburgh. 

Accept Support When Offered

Sometimes it is hard to accept that I can’t do everything.  I’m quite fortunate that my circle of friends includes many from childhood and some that still live close to my parents.  When I can’t be there, they have quietly stepped in.  They’ve provided emotional support for me, helped care for my father, and been there for my mother when she needed them. 

Ask About Available Resources

Social workers, nursing home staff, and medical professionals can direct you towards available programs and resources.  Programs include financial assistance, respite care, and caregiver support.  Keep asking and be persistent.  Apply for everything.  Available resources vary by state.  Look for the local agency on aging, veteran’s benefits, fraternal organizations, state and federal programs. 

Recognize When it’s Time to Bring in an Expert

The intricacies of medical benefits, property law and resources available to seniors and veterans are complex and hiring a certified elder law attorney to guide us through the process ensured that everything was done correctly the first time. My mother’s assets were protected while providing for my father’s care.  The process is highly stressful and expensive and can drag out for many months.  I’d recommend a planning session with an experienced attorney long before you think you need one.  Remember to laugh when Mom reminds you that she wanted you to go to law school.

Don’t Avoid the Hard Conversations

Talking about death and illness is not pleasant, but it’s necessary.  It’s been almost a decade since we sat around the kitchen table and had a detailed conversation about Dad’s illness before his open-heart surgery.  Those discussions were the basis for the power of attorney documents.  We had all the legal documents in place when we needed them, and I had financial and healthcare power of attorney.  Assume that someday you will need power of attorney documents and meet with an attorney before you have a crisis.  Update these documents as necessary – circumstances change, and people change their minds. 

Document Everything and Keep Meticulous Records

We were required to produce five years of financial records and document all expenses over $500 during that time to document my parents’ assets and their ability to pay for the nursing home.  This required multiples trips to the attic to dig out boxes ofCursive Handwriting in blue ink saying "Anything I should do?" A note from Kris Lescinsky's Mom bank statements, receipts, printing out old tax returns and paying the bank for images of old checks.  Look at your current online banking platform.  How long are check images and statements available?  Start building that five-year history for yourself and your parents.  Invest in a secure online repository for your information that allows for secure storage, full-text search, image retrieval, export to .pdf files, and keyword tagging. This really helped me reduce the burden of information gathering for state and federal agencies.  If you store this information on your home PC, please make sure it is backed up automatically to a secure cloud backup.  Having full access to all my parent’s information on my phone allowed me to quickly respond when required to produce documents.

Video Chat is Invaluable

Over the last few years, I’ve established multiple methods of video chatting with my parents.  I’ve sent multiple devices and used all the major software packages.  I set up the iPad on the nursing home network to be able to see Dad and talk to doctors or staff if needed.  I gave my mother an Amazon Echo so I could drop in and video chat.  Sometimes I think I have a sister named Alexa, because I can see Mom chats with her more than with me.  Use whatever system works for you. 

Utilize Technology that Works for Everyone

I researched scanners, looking for a device that was simple to operate, that required no remote login to initiate a transfer.  I purchased a Fujitsu ScanSnap and configured the scanner to automatically save documents to my personal Microsoft OneDrive.  Then I used Microsoft Flow to create a workflow to send notifications to my phone that a new document had arrived.  Sending documents was as easy as loading the scanner and pressing a single button. My Mom is a technophobe to say the least, but she figured out that she could now “text” me, by writing a note and dropping it in the scanner.  No smart phone required.  

KrisCelebrate Today, Tomorrow is not Guaranteed

Not every story has a happy ending.  My father didn’t live long enough to see me finish my graduate program.  He did get to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary with my mother.  My husband and I flew home and hosted a small lunch for family and close friends at his nursing home.  Three weeks later he quietly slipped away without warning, with my mother holding his hand. 

We’re slowly finding a new balance.  I’ve finished my graduate program at Penn State, and we’re adjusting to our new normal.  Mom is coming to visit next month, and she’s asked about learning to ‘actually’ text and I’m hopeful I’ll talk her into a smartphone for her 75th birthday while she’s in town.