For Aida Beltré, working remotely during the pandemic came as a relief.
Working from home for a rental property company, she could handle it. In fact, like most family caregivers during the early days of COVID-19, she had to handle it. Community programs for the elderly had shut down.
Even when Beltré switched to a hybrid work role — meaning some days in the office, others at home — caring for her father was manageable, though never easy.
Then she was ordered back to the office full time in 2022. By then, Medicaid was covering 17 hours of home care a week, up from five. But that was not close to enough. Beltré, now 61, was always rushing, always worrying. There was no way she could leave her father alone so long.
She quit. “I needed to see my dad,” she said.
She was taking care of her father, now 86, who has been in and out of hospitals and rehabs after a worsening series of strokes in recent years.
In theory, the national debate about remote or hybrid work is one great big teachable moment about the demands on the 53 million Americans taking care of an elderly or disabled relative.
But the “return to office” debate has centered on commuting, convenience and child care. That fourth C, caregiving, is seldom mentioned.
That’s a missed opportunity, caregivers and their advocates say.
Employers and co-workers understand the need to take time off to care for a baby. But there’s a lot less understanding about time to care for anyone else.
“We need to destigmatize it and create a culture where it’s normalized, like birth or adoption,” said Karen Kavanaugh, chief of strategic initiatives at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers. For all the talk of cradle to grave, she said, “mostly, it’s cradle.”
After her stepmother died, Beltré moved her father into her home in Fort Myers, Florida, in 2016. His needs have multiplied, and she’s been juggling, juggling, juggling. She’s exhausted and, now, unemployed.
She’s also not alone. About one-fifth of U.S. workers are family caregivers, and nearly a third have quit a job because of their caregiving responsibilities, according to a report from the Rosalynn Carter Institute. Others cut back their hours. The Rand Corp. has estimated that caregivers lose a half a trillion dollars in family income each year — an amount that’s almost certainly gone up since the report was released nearly a decade ago.
Beltré briefly had a remote job but left it. The position required sales pitches to people struggling with elder care, which she found uncomfortable. She rarely gets out — only to the grocery store and church, and even then she’s constantly checking on her dad.
“This is the story of my life,” she said.
Workplace flexibility, however desirable, is no substitute for a national long-term care policy, a viable long-term care insurance market, or paid family leave, none of which are on Washington’s radar.
President Joe Biden gave family caregivers a shoutout in his State of the Union address in February and followed up in April with an executive order aimed at supporting caregivers and incorporating their needs in planning federal programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. Last year, his Department of Health and Human Services released a National Strategy to Support Family Caregivers outlining how federal agencies can help and offering road maps for the private sector.
Although Biden checked off priorities and potential innovations, he didn’t offer any money. That would have to come from Congress. And Congress right now is locked in a battle over cutting spending, not increasing it.
So that leaves it up to families.
Remote work can’t fill all the caregiving gaps, particularly when the patient has advanced disease or dementia and needs intense round-the-clock care from a relative who is also trying to do a full-time job from the kitchen table.
But there are countless scenarios in which the option to work remotely is an enormous help.