Young woman assists older lady

Keeping it Together as a Lawyer with Caregiving Responsibilities

  • December 04, 2020
  • Emily Sinkins

Operating in an especially demanding field, most lawyers struggle to achieve healthy balance between their personal and professional lives. Caring for an elderly relative or other individual who is vulnerable, dependant, or living with a disability adds complexity to an already intricate and intimidating equation that lawyers are attempting to solve and re-solve daily.  Add a pandemic to the mix, and it’s no surprise that lawyers with caregiving responsibilities are seeking new strategies for safeguarding their own wellness while seeing to the needs of others.

The magnified caregiving concerns in an altered landscape

As someone who works with adults, older adults and their caregivers to help them navigate issues related to aging and mental health, consulting occupational therapist, Nira Rittenberg, OT (Ont) has seen the impact of COVID on the lives of those she counsels. “The pre-existing issues have been magnified and the landscape has changed,” she says, “so I’m getting a lot of people who are boxed in, in terms of options.” If you were considering a nursing home for an older relative before the pandemic, for example, you may now be skittish, or if you have a person in a nursing home, you may now be considering getting them out. That the options don’t look the same or don’t feel the same contributes to caregiver stress.

With people at home more, home-safety concerns – like falls – are amplified, particularly as caretakers are not able to access the person they’re caring for in the same way. With less frequent or fewer face-to-face check-ins, it’s also more difficult to tell how an elderly relative is functioning. It’s been just nine months since the first provincial shutdown, but, Rittenberg notes, “in the life of an eighty-something-year-old that could be a big change in functioning … you don’t know, is it physical, is it cognitive, is it mental health, is it combination?” Or is it normal aging? This uncertainty leaves many caregivers questioning how they can comply with COVID guidelines without neglect and without endangerment.

For those feeling this pressure taking a toll on their own health, Rittenberg, who spoke at a recent WLF program on elder care support presented by the OBA’s Parent and Caregiver Network, has essential advice.

Start from what’s possible, and avoid spiralling

First, figure out what you can solve.  Ask yourself “what you really need to target,” Rittenberg suggests, and from there determine “what you can do, what you can park, and what’s essential.” When you’ve identified your needs, look at your abilities – realistically.  Resources may become strained, or a previously reliable support less available – it’s a constantly changing dynamic. “Be compassionate about the reality, don’t torture yourself over things that can’t really be.”

Add self-care to your list of essentials

Self-care, productivity, and leisure are the three anchors that we all need some balance in, and, in Rittenberg’s experience, “self-care is usually the first to go out the window.” You have to recognize that ‘me time’ is not  expendable and schedule and enforce it – whether it’s a short walk, some indoor gardening, a text or time-out with a friend – the same way you do other priorities. “You wouldn’t skip a ZOOM meeting with a client, because you see that as critical,” Rittenberg points out. “Why is it that we allow ourselves to skip something that probably has more long-lasting effect?” If you’re caring for a parent, consider what your mom or dad would want you to do, she says. “Very often, the answer is ‘not run myself into the ground.’”

Don’t neglect your physical own health

“I have caregivers who end up more ill than the person they’re caring for because they’re stressed,“ Rittenberg explains, noting the high rates of depression and other mental health issues among caregivers, many of whom are not young themselves, not to mention physical stresses. Ignoring early warning signs in ourselves of what might prove to be much bigger issues serves no one. “All the things you’re shoving down are going to come roaring back at you if you don’t take care of them,” she warns.

Don’t beat yourself up

When it comes to connecting with the person you’re caring for, says Rittenberg, “people think it’s quantity; it’s not. It’s quality.”  A seven-minute phone call is no less positive than a 20-minute one, she argues, particularly for people who are memory-impaired and don’t weigh time the same way.  While caregivers may feel guilt for shorter, increasingly online interactions, for their loved ones it might simply be seeing the friendly face – whether in person or on a computer screen, with a quick hello or a full chat – that makes their day.  

Assemble your team – creatively

Put together a team, just like you would at work, to ensure you’ve got the people in place with the knowledge and support you need. Be creative – look outside the obvious support circle. It might be an accountant you need; if you’re caring for parents without understanding a great deal about their finances, you may not even realize what long-term care options you can pursue. “Sometimes there are people in your world who can help, who have nothing to do with visiting or bringing food,” says Rittenberg, citing the example of her elderly neighbours who get a ring on their doorbell every day from the same mail carrier who has served the community for years. “You know he’s’ not coming in or having tea or anything like that – but that’s’ an interface,” says Rittenberg. “Small things like that can make a huge difference."

Accept that what works for you won’t work for everyone and vice versa

In considering the care you or someone who relies on you needs, Rittenberg cautions, “Don’t compare and contrast – there’s no perfect.”

However well-meaning, advice from others in similar but not equivalent situations can be unhelpful; you must find the solution that is best for you, your family, and the person you’re caring for. Some people will tell you the ‘only’ answer is to care for your loved one at home, others will tell you a care home is the ideal solution, but you have to look at your resources alongside unique care needs. “Re-creating a nursing home in your own home is not always the best care,” says Rittenberg. It may not even be what the person you’re caring for would want, nor provide you both with the quality time you had hoped.

Similarly, in carving out time for yourself, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, so Rittenberg advises being targeted in what you what need: “Sometimes pursuing a leisure activity or having a break is more useful than a support group,”  she says. For others, individual counselling allows them to work though worries and move on with their day. Some people love yoga, others prefer an hour of Netflix. What’s important is you find that thing that gives you joy – no judgement – and foster it.


Additional resources

Find a list of useful resources on Nira Rittenberg’s website.

Connect with other lawyers with caregiving responsibilities via the OBA Parent and Caregiver Network website.