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In 1992 some big changes crashed into Jean's life and career.

Her elderly mother had a massive stroke in Florida and had to be moved to an apartment in the northern state where Jean lives. There she had another stroke.Next, Jean's father became seriously ill. Now the couple lives in a nursing home near Jean, their only child.

The changes led Jean to retire early from her marketing job. But she returned to work last year for financial reasons. Now she balances her new job with her exhaustive caregiving responsibilities.

Jean is one of a growing number of people whose jobs are affected by elder-care responsibilities. About 25 percent of working Americans are responsible for the care of an elderly relative, says Jim Sherman, a Minneapolis-based elder-care expert, seminar leader and author of several books for caregivers. Many of these workers have switched from full-time to part-time work, altered schedules, declined promotions or quit.

The trend is expected to continue. In the next 20 years about one-third of American workers will be caring for an elderly relative at home, estimates Tom Humphrey, executive director of Children of Aging Parents, Levittown, Pa.

Here are ways to deal with these sharply competing priorities. Next week I'll list ways managers can help employees who are eldercare givers:

- First, get all the information you can about elder-care and the illnesses affecting your relatives, suggests Janet Wells, a health advocacy specialist with the American Association of Retired Persons. Locate helpers, support, advice and referrals. Start with your company employee assistance program, local churches, public library, area agency on aging, senior centers, health-care centers and legal aid societies.

Check out the national Eldercare Information and Referral Service, 800-677-1116; Children of Aging Parents, 800-227-7294, and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, 520-881-4005. Write to AARP Fulfillment, 601 E St. NW, Washington D.C. 20049 for a variety of free publications on many topics affecting the elderly. Cruise commercial online services and the Internet, too.

- Know your employer`s policies on using paid and unpaid leave time, sick days and vacation time to care for ill or disabled family members.

- Understand that there are many kinds of care that may be right at different times for your relative, ranging from daily meal delivery to 24-hour care. Explore the options with your relative to give each of you maximum flexibility, Wells says.

- Be upfront with your manager about the changes in your life and your evolving responsibilities. Speak about what you can do instead of what you can`t do. Engage your manager in exploring creative solutions like a shorter work week, flexible schedules, job sharing, part-time work or telecommuting.

- Watch out for signs of exhaustion and burnout, Sherman writes in his book, "Preventing Caregiver Burnout" (Pathway Books, 612-377-1521). Get help and support often. Take care of yourself every day. Jean relaxes by playing piano, meditating and going out with friends.

- Recognize that being an elder-care giver will change your life and job for a long time, Sherman says. Don't expect to move through your career and life as you always have.