Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Work Life Balance 2.0 (aka "To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honours" Tia Walker)

Work Life Balance

To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors
– Tia Walker
When lawyers and law firms talk about supporting work-life balance as part of a well-being strategy or as part of the lack of well-being in our profession, we tend to think of lawyers with young families—babies who are up at night, school-aged children with busy activity schedules, and teenagers who keep their parents up at night worrying.

It is easy to forget the other demographics facing work-life balance challenge: lawyers with elderly family members or other family members in need of care. Many of us plan our families around our careers (to the extent possible.) We try to get to a certain point in our careers, particularly if we are female, believed to be best for keeping our careers on track for success. And we know the trajectory being parents will take. We have read What to Expect in the First Year and its successors, overthinkers that we are.

But on the other end of the care-giver spectrum, we have no control over when we become caregivers to elderly parents. It can happen at a very inconvenient time in our careers—and there is no nine-month preparation (or adoption registration) period. It just happens. One day your elderly parent (or other elderly relative) seems to be managing decently for their age, and then the world changes overnight.

This has been my reality in 2022. The year started off just like any other year. I had two elderly parents (in their late 80s, divorced since I was a child) who were each independent and healthy. My dad was slowing down—we could see that—but in early January, after running errands in his car but thankfully back home, he had an episode of acute weakness and was transported to hospital in an ambulance. We didn’t think it was anything to be worried about and after a few days of poor communication and no apparent progress, he insisted on being discharged. He managed back at his condo for less than three hours, and apart from one short visit two weeks ago before the condo was sold to say goodbye to it and his neighbours, he has never returned. He fell and broke his hip in the hospital! And then came a devastating diagnosis, a degenerative disease that includes disturbing hallucinations.

My sister and I both say that it never occurred to us that both of our parents would have a medical crisis at the same time. They were both so healthy, so strong and so high functioning for their ages. But while we were negotiating long-term care alternatives for Dad, our mom started to face challenges as well. We received phone calls from police officers, doctors, nurses—people telling us that they didn’t think she should be living alone. Or driving.

How do you manage your busy legal career when one of your parents begins to struggle? You bundle up your laptop and whatever else you need—thank you covid for the remote work reality—and you head off to sit in hospital or doctor’s office waiting rooms or working from hotspots on your phone if your elderly parent does not have an internet connection.

Welcome to Work Life Balance Conundrum 2.0.

At Assist, I talk to lawyers, and occasionally articling students and law students, who are trying to fulfill their demanding work responsibilities, while also being there for the people who walked the floors with them when they were colicky babies. And make no bones about it: seeing your formerly vibrant parents, the people who, in your young eyes, could do everything, fade and weaken is heart-breaking. You juggle your schedule so you can take them to medical appointments and tests, which then get rescheduled. You wait with them, you wait for them, and you take them home. Sometimes you just want to stay with them, sitting in the kitchen or living room, just being in their presence, but you need to get back to work. Or a phone call interrupts your visit. Back to lawyer mode we go.

When you have young children, your co-workers may understand when you have to leave for a school assembly or a sports tournament (note how this has changed over my 35 years in law!). But how do they react when you leave the office to attend a family conference at long-term care? Or when you get a panicked call from the emergency room from a physician asking who can come to pick up your elderly parent and you no longer have any family in that community? And, as I discovered, this can happen during your most demanding week, the week that you tried to clear as much as possible so that you could focus on that one big project.

How legal employers respond to these challenges separates the talk-the-talk well-being organizations from the walk-the-walk organizations. Instead of asking whether you have any other siblings who can take care of the current issue, they can simply ask “what do you need?”  And, together, you can try to identify alternatives.

I spent about twelve years as senior in-house counsel at two large corporations where, among other responsibilities, I oversaw outside counsel working on files. As a consumer of legal services, we wanted our work done well and efficiently. We did not want lawyers billing time on our files who were distracted or not at their best. My message to legal employers is to please consider this when your reaction is to tell your lawyer employee to get a sibling to handle the elderly parent crisis. Even when there is another sibling close by (not my reality but true for some), there may be a reason that the elderly parent wants, or needs, a particular child’s care.

As lawyer-parents, we wear our superhero capes with pride. As lawyer-children turned caregivers, we encounter resistance and sometimes we feel shame that we can’t do it all and that we are somehow slackers.

If this is your reality, you are not alone. There is a community of Alberta lawyers who are quietly going through this, too. And we are gathering for a series of webinars to talk about what we are experiencing emotionally and how to provide support to our elderly family in end-of-life scenarios. And we are also going to talk about resources to help us cope.

Here is an example for those whose journey on elder care has not yet started. When my dad received his diagnosis in March, he was assessed as needing long-term care. We  were told that we needed to select his top three choices for long-term care homes. In Alberta, patients are matched with available beds through an office called Bed Hub. When an individual is assessed as needing long-term care, the social workers (at a hospital or in the community) submit a report detailing information about patients and their needs. Long term-care homes who have a bed become available also submit a report outlining what kind of a bed they have (memory care, type of support, etc.) and the Bed Hub nurses match patients to beds using specified criteria with vacancies. You can be placed anywhere in your region initially—which for Edmonton was Morinville to Leduc—while you wait out a vacancy at the first of your top three choices. And vacancies only occur when a resident passes away. You are effectively hoping that someone at one of your top three choices will pass away so your relative can have their spot.

My sister—in the US—took charge of trying to get information about the long care homes closest to where my dad wanted to be to enhance his visitor list. I then took her information and created a spreadsheet. My staff will laugh at the idea of me creating a spreadsheet, but I can assure you it was pretty basic. And then my brother-in-law, a data scientist who actually understands spreadsheets, made it much more functional. A cousin and my dad’s lady friend visited the top prospects, and we whittled our list down to three. We were fortunate that my sister does not work outside of the home and that my cousin and Dad’s lady friend are all retired. But my sister and I spoke to Dad every day, at least once, as well as to members of the healthcare team. It was a very demanding time, and it had a happy ending. My Dad served in the reserve Air Force for many years, and Edmonton has a wonderful long-term care home for those who served. He qualified. A friend of his with a loved one at that facility was able to tell us that two beds had become available, and that the social worker was on holidays that week, meaning that the Bed Hub match documents would not be submitted until the following week when he returned. The hospitalist was getting ready to discharge Dad, meaning that a hospital social worker would submit a Bed Hub application on his behalf. We told them that there was a vacancy coming up and his discharge coincided with the notification to Bed Hub of the vacancy, and my dad was matched to his first choice!

But when I got the phone call saying that he had been matched to a bed at his first choice, I was told that he would be moving the next morning—in slightly less than 24 hours. We were given a list of things he had to bring. And we wanted to make sure that everything was as homelike and filled with his favourite things as possible. My son and I were able to drive up and bring most of his paintings or photos of all of the airplanes he had flown over his career and soon his room, which I am calling a suite, so it sounds like something other than a slightly modified hospital room, reflected his personality and tastes.

Is it exhausting just reading this? It is exhausting remembering all of it and writing about it.

I learned a few weeks ago that there are consultants who help manage senior housing options, including with respect to selecting your top three choices (if you opt for the public system as opposed to the private system which is a whole separate decision-making process). My jaw dropped—imagine that someone already had most of the information we were chasing and that I didn’t need to build a spreadsheet. Imagine having a bit more confidence that we had asked the right questions and had all the right answers.

This is one of the messages we will be sharing at our webinar—how to access services or consultancies so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. When I think about the best way my time was spent, it was for personal care for my dad. While he appreciated the work we did to identify the best long-term care options for him, he liked it when we could spend time with him as well.

When I do presentations about work-life balance, I often ask lawyers to look at what they can farm out, like housework or yard work. When my children were small, we had a nanny, but I didn’t want my kids to think that anyone was “above” housework, so I did my own housework. I became exhausted and unwell. I had to learn that it was okay to have help and that spending time with my kids was the most important thing. Similarly, while we may have a martyrdom attitude that we have to do everything to take care of our elderly parents, while excelling in our challenging jobs, this is not the case. We can identify what gives our parent the most comfort—probably spending time with them—and farm out other tasks like information-gathering.

While we will include a for-fee service provider in our webinar, we are not endorsing the services of one provider over any other provider. We want to show lawyers who join our webinar series that there are effective ways of easing the load. The consultant told me, for example, that there are over 200 senior living options and 35 home care services in Calgary alone. How do you possibly have time to investigate all of these, and wouldn’t you like to into someone else’s knowledge and expertise?

If you are currently on the elder care journey or if you think this is in your future, please join us. If you have lawyers in your organization who are encountering elder care challenges, please ask what they need and work with them to find solutions which allow them to continue to provide high-quality legal work while freeing them up to provide emotional support to elderly parents at the most vulnerable time of their lives.

Lawyer-well being includes supporting lawyers to care for family members, not just children, if this is a role they choose or is thrust on them. Let’s talk more and share more information about practicing law while walking end of life journeys with elderly parents (or others.) The Assist Board has been great to me, offering me an unpaid leave of absence if I need it. I am the only lawyer employed by Assist, so there would be some fancy footwork required—and perhaps some sacrifice from my executive committee at the least—but I know that I am supported and that they have my back. In return, I will do everything in my power to continue to achieve at high qualitative and quantitative levels because they have invested in me.

Please join us to learn more. And if you need to talk to someone else about caring for an elderly parent, call us. Our peer support team has cared for family members with a wide range of health issues. My own expertise is expanding into new diagnoses.

And remember that caring for our elderly folks is stressful and that you can meet with a counsellor for support and strategies. Call 1-877-498-6898. Or call us for peer support at 1-877-737-5508. We are here for you.