By Susan Lutz, Project Advisor for AARP’s Education and Outreach Health TeamSusan Lutz

It’s happened before: A long-time employee is denied leave when her boss asserts that it is not a daughter’s responsibility to care for her ailing mother as long as her father is still alive.

Could this happen to you?

As our population and labor force ages, caring for an older relative will become as common as taking care of children. With the majority of older people relying on family as their primary support, it is no surprise that 30 million households — almost one in four — care for someone age 50 or older on a regular basis, according to a 2009 study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Connect with resources, experts and other caregivers.

While the majority of Americans have to balance work with family responsibilities, today’s workplaces can, at times, still resemble the 1950s’ breadwinner–and-homemaker workforce model, with the wife expected to put her life and career on hold to care for any family members in need. But most women can’t take that time off – the 2009 study showed that three out of four caregivers have worked at some time while caring for an older person. Companies that support employees’ caregiving responsibilities will be better positioned to address the workforce dynamic of the future, when there will be even more dual-income households caring for even more aging parents.

Caregivers often seek flexibility in their work day to accommodate the many responsibilities that come with caring for an aging parent. Whether it’s accompanying someone to an appointment, speaking with doctors or arranging for services, caregivers need time to meet these demands.

Despite the prevalence of working caregivers, most federal and state statutes do not expressly protect workers with family responsibilities, according to AARP’s research.

If you are working and caring for an older relative or anticipate having this responsibility, here are a few tips:

  • Know your company’s policies about work schedule flexibility. Do they permit employees to adjust work hours, use sick leave, work from home or job share? (If not, check out AARP’s Best Employers for Workers Over 50 program. Many of the organizations celebrated by this awards program have made it a point to offer such flexibility.)
  • Learn about the Family Medical Leave Act, which lets many employees take unpaid time off of work (up to 12 weeks, which do not need to be consecutive) to care for an ill family member. Your job or its equivalent is guaranteed when you return. If you work for a small company or are a newly-hired employee, you may not be eligible for this leave.
  • Find out if your company has an employee assistance benefit that supports caregivers.
  • Seek out others who have managed work and caregiving – share ideas and be each other’s support group.
  • Take advantage of services and supports in your or your parent’s community. The National Family Caregiver Support Program can provide information, referrals to services and support to working caregivers.