She’s Shining a Light on These Forgotten Caregivers: Working Daughters
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Women shouldn't have to choose between their careers and caring for elderly parents.
By Maroosha Muzaffar
Liz O’Donnell was in the parking lot of a geriatric psychiatric facility where her father had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she received a call from her mother’s doctor, who informed her that her mother had ovarian cancer.
A busy PR professional and the mother of two children, O’Donnell felt unprepared to almost single-handedly care for both her parents. “It was real hands-on care,” she recalls: She helped with their grocery shopping, housework, sorting their pills and getting them to doctor appointments. She felt alone and overwhelmed. “I decided that I didn’t want others to go through the same pain,” she says.
Today, O’Donnell is driving a national conversation to help other working women prepare for the challenges she faced six years ago — and her work has never been more critical than amid the heightened fears around elder care spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, and many of them require care. And the latest census figures show that more than 40 million caregivers for the elderly — a majority of them women — are unpaid. A 2011 MetLife study found that women who leave their jobs to serve as family caregivers effectively lose, on average, $324,044 in earnings. To address those issues, O’Donnell is building support systems and resources for caregivers choosing a different path: working daughters.
On her podcast, Working Daughter, the 52-year-old brings together medical experts, researchers, financial advisers and entrepreneurs to help guide women on balancing their jobs with caring for their parents. Last year, her book on the challenges around elder care, also titled Working Daughter, was published. She also hosts monthly virtual meetups “for working daughters who want to connect.” And her website offers tips and advice — much of it these days aimed at caregivers worried about the coronavirus.
You might feel like ‘I don’t think I can do this one more day,’ and other times you might feel glad to be in a position to help them.
Her advice columns — “What to send to the hospital with your elderly parent” and “Navigating COVID-19, a working daughter’s guide,” among them — are also available in O’Donnell’s private Facebook group, Working Daughter. Its 3,000 members caring for elderly parents ask questions and share concerns. It’s a group that experts are recommending to family caregivers, particularly in these uncertain times.
“There are resources available for single working mothers, but hardly any for working daughters who have to care for their elderly parents, raise their own children, pursue their career goals and manage other relationships and friendships,” O’Donnell says from her home in Dedham, a Boston suburb where she lives with her two teenage daughters.
When O’Donnell started the Facebook group in 2015, she often got the response “Oh, how lucky that you get to care for the people who cared for you.” But she didn’t always feel lucky while caring for her parents, both of whom have since passed away. It was hard work, mentally, emotionally and physically. O’Donnell’s late husband, who died in March 2019 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, was a stay-at-home dad; she was the breadwinner. The Working Daughter community, O’Donnell says, allows women to honestly discuss the conflicting emotions that they often experience as caregivers. “You might feel like ‘I don’t think I can do this one more day’ and other times you might feel glad to be in a position to help them,” she says.
That’s what makes the Facebook group special, says Beverly DeWitt, a hospice nurse who is familiar with O’Donnell’s work. “Her book and the FB community talk about the uncomfortable aspects of it [caregiving], which is a must for others to feel less lonely.”
The Facebook group, which has grown by word of mouth, is predominately made up of women, although there are some male members. O’Donnell screens people seeking to join to make sure they’re caring for an elderly family member. At times in the past few years, she says, her work took a back seat while she cared for her parents and her husband.
But that hasn’t affected interest in her work from leading elder care experts. “Liz O’Donnell is shining a spotlight on a key issue we are facing in an aging society,” says William Haley, chair of the American Psychological Association’s committee on aging. “Our society needs to do much more to support working caregivers, and Liz is doing an impressive job of contributing to the recognition of this issue.”
That’s a view shared by Janet Simpson Benvenuti, founder and CEO of the family health advocacy group Circle of Life Partners. “Join the private Facebook group Working Daughter, where you’ll find emotional support from thousands of women and men who are supporting their aging parents,” she wrote in a recent blog.
With caregivers increasingly overwhelmed and stressed these days, managing the Facebook group is more challenging than ever. “I try and check in on them every morning and evening,” O’Donnell says of the community that has come to rely on her. “It is a heartbreaking situation. They are terrified.” In response, she has created a breakout group focused specifically on coronavirus concerns. Sometimes she suggests fun activities for the elderly: large-print adult coloring books, word search puzzles and jigsaw puzzles.
This wasn’t exactly how O’Donnell imagined her life while growing up in Dedham with an electrician father and a mother who worked in the insurance industry. Young Liz wanted to be a writer. After graduating from Emerson College, she worked as a journalist until the “terrible” pay made her switch to PR. But everything changed in the parking lot that day in 2014.
O’Donnell, who still works in PR, has also co-founded SheStarts, an organization that provides a networking and coaching platform for Boston-area female entrepreneurs, as well as the group Women in Democracy-Dedham, which encourages women to get involved in local politics. “Once she is passionate about anything, she goes after that with all her heart,” says Monica Linari, a childhood friend.
Passion alone isn’t enough, though, and O’Donnell knows it. “When they [the media] talk about support to the working parent, I am like, ‘Hey what about family caregivers?’” she says. O’Donnell believes workplaces need to recognize the impact that caregiving has on women and their careers. “We need to create awareness at the workplace,” she states.
Through her podcast, website, book and Facebook group, O’Donnell hopes to be a catalyst for change. “What we are going through right now matters,” she says. “The role of a caregiver is becoming visible.”
- Maroosha Muzaffar