From the moment you decided to start a business, you had a plan. And as the years have passed, you've likely modified it—shaping, molding and tweaking your original business plan to make it fit today's marketplace.
If you're like many of your peers, you feel as if nothing can stop you from fulfilling your entrepreneurial goals. If your supply chain stumbles, commodity prices rise or you lose a key client, you're ready—or at least ready to try and avoid going down in flames.
But nothing can really test an entrepreneur like a problem with a parent. That's when business gets deeply personal.
If your parents are getting up there in years, it's time to start thinking about what might happen if either of them gets sick and need your help. Because unless you have a lot of siblings to lend a hand, or you and your parents have plenty of assets available to hire help, chances are, your parents are going to turn to you for assistance.
When the Parent Becomes the Child
"Caring for my aging father was the most emotionally, physically and mentally draining experience of [my] life," says Daria Brezinski, a psychologist who has multiple income streams from public speaking, hosting a public access TV show and doing consulting work. Several years ago, she also had a lucrative practice, but that was before her father's health worsened and he needed her help.
In 2009, Brezinski's father, Edward, who had been ill for years from a combination of World War II injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, strokes and heart attacks, took a turn for the worse. Because her mom had passed away 10 years earlier, it was left to Brezinski to care for him. For three years, she shuttled back and forth from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, as his health worsened.
"I cleaned house, cooked and gave him emotional support, and got him to go to the local senior center," she says. It was great for her dad but not so great for her practice.
"Eventually, clients went elsewhere as my dad's needs required 12- to 14-hour-a day attentiveness from me," Brezinski says. "By the time he died in 2012, the [practice] had died as well."
Changing Things Up
If you're currently facing challenges with an aging parent or think you might be in the not-too-distant future, here are some adjustments you might want to consider making:
1. Move your business. That's what management consultant John Paul Engel did. Engel moved his business from San Diego to Sioux City, Iowa, where his parents lived. "I cared for my mother until her death and then for my father until his death last year," Engel says.
"Moving hurt my business," Engel acknowledges. So did caring for his parents. But like Brezinski, he doesn't regret helping his folks. "Best investment I ever made was coming back to care for my parents," he says.
Unlike Bresinski, however, who ended up losing her business, Engel managed to hang on. And today, he says, "My business is better than ever."
2. Make technology your friend. Engel says having a smartphone helped a lot, since he spent a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms and was able to use the time to keep in touch with clients and work on other business-related tasks. "An iPad may be even better," he suggests.
Danielle Barbieri, founder and CEO of Pirc.com, a site that lets shoppers create their own personalized weekly circular of sales and coupons, has relied on videoconferencing to keep up with the business end of things when she's out of town helping her parents.
Barbieri, who lives in San Jose, California, has been spending a lot of time in South Carolina with her parents. She's also the appointed guardian for her Florida-based uncle, who never married or had kids. There have been health issues for all of them off and on for about 10 years, but it's really gotten worse in the past few years.
"I had been going back and forth for weeks and months at a time while my mom suffered throat cancer and [went through] shoulder surgery rehab," Barbieri says. "Then my dad underwent two shoulder replacements, [endured] a host of medical issues and, finally, had bile duct cancer." He passed away in February. Her uncle, who recently experienced some serious health issues, is now in a nursing and rehab facility.
Videoconferencing has been a godsend for Barbieri, she says. "It's been essential to keeping my partner and me connected and collaborating on prototypes, mockups, etc.," she says. "We use Zoom.us, which I highly recommend." Zoom.us, Skype and other forms of videoconferencing can also be a useful way to stay in touch with an elderly parent who simply needs some checking in on from time to time.
3. Hire someone to help you. Debra Cohen, president of Home Remedies of NY Inc. and creator of Homeowner Referral Network, had two elderly parents to care for in Florida during the startup years of her contract referral business. "At times, it was a challenge," says the New York City-based entrepreneur. "I was flying back and forth several times a year every year—sometimes, for an emergency."
Cohen eventually hired a virtual assistant to help out. "I trained her on the customer service side of my business," Cohen explains, "so she could easily pick up the slack for me at a moment's notice. I traveled with a laptop and created a makeshift office in my parents' home, so I could work from there as well." Cohen's mother passed away five years ago, and her father died last October. And while she no longer had parental concerns zapping her time, she kept her virtual assistant on staff, because she was such a big help with the business.
Brezinski says that if she could do it over again, she would have hired someone to replace her at her psychology practice. "It would have been more beneficial—financially, emotionally, physically—to hire someone to replace me," she says.
4. Outsource. It works in business—it can with your parents, too. Just as all entrepreneurs eventually have to learn to let go and outsource nonessential work or hire employees so they can focus their core competencies, you can outsource some of the tasks you or your parent need help with. In other words, finances permitting, maybe you don't have to do it all.
"While I wasn't in Florida," Cohen says, "I made sure to keep a list of support staff—doctors, home health-care aides, drivers, food delivery services, neighbors and contractors—who I could call on for advice and/or help."
5. Be good to yourself. "It's cliché but oh so true," Barbieri says, offering advice to sandwich-generation entrepreneurs, who have commitments to kids, aging parents and their business: "Exercise and eat well when you can, and really make that a conscious, scheduled effort, because there will be days when you simply can't manage it because you haven't slept and pizza is the only thing the kids want to eat."
Although she admits she's had trouble following her own advice, Barbieri stresses the importance of recognizing that what you can do is enough. "Don't feel guilty," she advises. "Do your best every day to deal with what you've been dealt with. And be present. Stop thinking about all the stuff you should be doing. Nothing in life is permanent, even your current situation."
Ideally, of course, your situation will improve for the better. Your parents' health will come around, and your business will become successful enough that you won't have to worry about the financial issues that come with caring for an aging parent. And if things don't get better, it may help to consider the silver lining.
"One thing that's been really helpful and important for me as I've gone through all of this is what one of my friends said to me in a Christmas card," Barbieri says. "She never got the chance to be with her mom since [her mom] died young, and she told me it was all a gift. And I believe that to be true, even—and especially on—the most challenging of days."
Brezinski echoes that sentiment, saying that it took some time for her to pick herself up and reinvent her business. "And even though it was grueling at the time," she adds, "there are no regrets whatsoever. It was time well spent."
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