To be with her sister who had terminal cancer and then her father who fell down a flight of steps and needed brain surgery at age 91, Trish Perry made the difficult decision to quit her corporate job.
"For me personally, there was no better reason to take this time; it was a wonderful thing to do," said Perry, 55, of Minneapolis, who walked away from a high-powered career as a retail executive. "I was fortunate I was in the position to be able to quit my job and do what aligned with my values."
When Perry was ready to take her career off pause and look for a new job, she wasn't sure how to frame her extended absence.
"A lot of us in the sandwich generation have to do this, but in my field, that kind of break on the résumé is unheard of," she said.
Some workplaces are slowly becoming more sympathetic to the plight of family caregivers, offering improved flex scheduling and leave time.
But for some caregivers managing the complex, round-the-clock medical demands of parents or older loved ones, the only choice that makes sense is to resign from their paid positions.
Like parents who want to get back to their careers after taking a break to raise their children, caregivers aren't always certain about what to say about their exit when they're ready to step back in.
"When the person on the hiring side sees an unexplained résumé gap, it makes them nervous," said Joanne Meehl, a Twin Cities career counselor who calls herself the Job Search Queen.
That's why Nancy Burke, a career coach who works with Minnesotans 50 and over, recommends taking the direct approach.
"There's nothing wrong with putting caregiving on your résumé like a job. Instead of a position with a company, write the dates you were out and something like, provided full time care for parent, who has died. That explains that the situation is resolved."
But don't be apologetic, whether on your résumé or in a face-to-face interview.
"Caregiving is a huge responsibility that requires skills of advocacy, persuasiveness, resilience. Keep your explanation simple, one or two sentences, but don't hide or belittle what you've done," advised Meehl. "Talk about how taking a detour was enriching."
Meehl suspects few hiring managers will dig much deeper.
"In American society, it's a fact that we don't like to talk about death. The person asking the questions probably won't want to probe beyond that."
Job market is good
Scaring up a new job can be a daunting task.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, two-thirds of family caregivers are women, with the majority of them middle-aged, defined as between 35 and 65. That demographic cohort already faces age and gender bias as they pursue work; a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds "robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring older women."
But today's low unemployment rate is a boon to returnees. With a shortage of job applicants for many openings, Burke thinks it's a fortuitous time for caregivers to be back on the market.
"If it's a matter of being out one to three years, the absence is often not an issue," she said. "Longer than that and there's the perception that you've lost some traction."
Unlike workers who leave the labor pool for full-time duty with kids, the caregiving role often comes to an end when a loved one dies. That can be followed by complicated chores that accompany settling even a modest estate.
Before presenting themselves to prospective employers, Meehl advises that returning workers not only refresh their network and catch up on changes in their industry, but that they also give themselves time to mourn.
"They should be sure they are ready to have these conversations, that they can talk about what they did in a calm way," she said. "No one wants to fight tears in a business situation."
For her part, Trish Perry decided to use her caregiving break to re-evaluate her career and make a change.
She trained to become a certified life coach and now specializes in helping clients overcome adversity and trauma. She also works with businesses to assist them with reintegrating employees who are returning to work following short- or long-term leaves.
When prospective clients check out Perry's LinkedIn profile, they see the break that she took stated on her résumé, which shows a two-year span devoted to "Personal leave to care for critically ill family members."
"I make no apologies, it's part of who I am," Perry said. "If anyone has an issue with it, then maybe I don't want to work with them."