Parental leave should include caring for the elderly

While legislation has secured workers time off after the births of their children, or to care for them when they are sick, it should be expanded so that they can mind their own ageing parents, writes Clodagh Finn

WHY aren’t employees given leave to care for parents? We give parents time off to mind sick children, so why isn’t it more acceptable to give children leave to mind elderly or ailing parents?

When a parent is sick or ailing, it is something deeply unsettling to see the tables turn. The person who got you through the chicken pox and the mumps, and a thousand other
ailments, is now the one in need of a little TLC.

It’s the natural order of things, of course.

The truth of that old saying, ‘once an adult, twice a child’, is being played out in homes all around the country, as adult children cope with their parents’ health declines.

Given the difficulties in securing affordable care and pensions, we’re all invoking the gods to remain independent and financially solvent in old age.

But as 2016 Census figures released this week show, many of us will, and do, need care.

The numbers of people who are caring, and the time they spend doing so, have increased since 2011.

Irish carers now provide 6.6m hours in unpaid care every week. 83,000 people, or 4% of the population, provide some kind of care, although the figures don’t specify to whom and in what circumstances.

However, half of those caring for loved-ones are aged between 40 and 59, a group prosaically known as the ‘sandwich carers’, because they are often minding young children, at one end of the age spectrum, and elderly parents, at the other.

The figures don’t tell the whole story. Not everyone will identify as a carer, though they spend their days doing just that, fitting in school runs, work, and visits to see how mum or dad are doing.

It just about works until something goes wrong and then — ask any ‘sandwich carer’ — the wheels come off.

Somehow, employers and society seem to have more sympathy when adults need time off to cope with an unexpected event in a child’s life — a fall from a bicycle, a persistent cold, a Christmas concert.

There is a happy and healthy focus on early life and much has been put in place to help parents negotiate their way through it, starting with maternity leave.

There has, rightly, been recognition that fathers, and even grandparents, are entitled to time off when a child is born.

Fathers take paternity leave as a matter of course and the idea of gran-paternity leave — allowing grandparents who work to take time off to mind their grandchildren — is gaining traction.

So much has been said and written about childhood development that we have put structures in place to cater for the young. However, we have not paid anything like that attention to the elderly.

Parental leave should include caring for the elderly

When we talk about the demographic time-bomb of our ageing population, it tends to be framed around pensions, the Fair Deal scheme, and the pressure it will put on an already creaking health service. The conversation is relentless in its negativity.

One way to change that, and to ease many of those pressures, is to allow people time off work to care for their ageing parents.

Employers don’t think twice about giving parents time off to mind sick children. Why isn’t it more acceptable to ask for time off to mind a sick or
ailing parent?

The term ‘parental leave’, as it stands, refers to parents who take leave of absence to mind children. Isn’t it time to broaden it out, so that it is granted to children who need to, or want to, look after their parents?

If we are given an opportunity to look after people coming into the world, surely we should be given the same opportunity to care for those leaving it.

As it stands, there is some provision for leave in exceptional circumstances. An employee can apply for carers’ leave (unpaid) or compassionate leave (three to five days’ paid) or force majeure, where a worker gets paid leave for urgent family reasons.

But there is nothing exceptional about age-related illness or dying, yet when either come — as they invariably will — there is an uphill struggle to do what is right to care for the people who have spent a lifetime looking after us.

Earlier this year, RTÉ presenter, Brendan Courtney, struck a deep chord with his documentary, We Need to Talk About Dad, which detailed his family’s difficulties in trying to secure care for their father, Frank, in his own home, following a stroke.

At the time, a Claire Byrne Live poll asked 1,000 adults if they would prefer to be cared for in their own home or in a nursing home.

Not surprisingly, a resounding majority (85%) said they wanted to be cared for in their own home. Just 6% opted for a nursing home, while 9% said they didn’t know.

Why, then, do we make it so hard for the primary carers — the children — to help their parents when they most need them?

When working children were asked what they most needed to care for their parents, they listed two things: paid care leave and understanding from their managers.

“Feeling supported by your employer is as significant as not having to worry about a reduced income,” one UK study said.

It’s time to do a similar Irish study to quantify the outpouring that followed Courtney’s documentary. As he said, we need to have this conversation in Ireland now.

We also need to start thinking about parental leave in a wider sense and consider the introduction of legislation that will give employees a certain number of weeks’ paid leave to look after ageing parents. If we can do it when life begins, we can do it when it ends, too.


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