Several years ago, my husband was on short term disability for a serious ailment and had survived a difficult surgery that left him with limited physical functioning in some areas. He became severely depressed and his company kept badgering him as to when he could return to work. Although over a period of a few months he was mostly healed physically from the surgery, mentally and emotionally he was having difficulty coping with all of the losses he suffered. We began to realize that there was something more serious going on, and while we worked to get treatment for his depression the company fired him. This caused his depression to worsen, and as my husband’s depression deteriorated he became suicidal. He was hospitalized a couple of times, and afterwards he had a nervous breakdown.
There were long periods of time when I couldn’t leave him alone. I was a self-employed sales person and the breadwinner during this time, and for a period of 9 months I was unable to work. We were fortunate that we had savings, but we had to spend down most of it on living expenses, including $1000 per month on COBRA health insurance premiums. When I returned to work, my income was 25% lower than before, and I never have recovered from this loss.
In reflecting on what happened to us, I didn’t think about the stress that was affecting my own mental health. The daily struggle of being a caregiver seeing to my husband’s physical and mental health needs, and the anxiety over our finances as I tried to determine when it might be safe for me to go back to work, was very overwhelming. Paid family and medical leave would have provided us with a safety net, preventing the depletion of thousands of dollars in savings, and could have redirected our energies from constant stress and anxiety toward healing.
I also experienced the need for paid family and medical leave with my mother, who retired early at age 62 to care for two aging parents. Her employer applied pressure regarding the amount of time she spent on the phone or away from the office to arrange medical attention, care, etc. which caused severe stress. These events prompted her employer to fire her. So, she retired early, with the resulting loss in current and future earnings, as well as the loss of future retirement savings, and a lifetime reduction in her Social Security benefit. This story illustrates in particular why paid family leave is especially crucial given the reduced lifetime earnings and retirement savings of women, as compared to men. Not surprisingly, older women comprise the highest percentage of those living in poverty, due to these factors.