"I felt they were both drowning, but I could only save one."
That line is from a rather haunting piece last weekend by the Times writer Janice Turner, describing her feelings about coping with both her increasingly frail father and a mother worn out by looking after him.
And it's stayed with me for days, I realise, because it's still so rare to see good writing lavished on a subject most editors instinctively avoid. While working parents' dramas are at least played out noisily in public, an uneasy silence lies over those of working sons and daughters, torn between work and a home they thought they had left long behind.
It isn't hard to see why we prefer not to talk or think about what happens in families towards the end. The story of parenthood is essentially uplifting, a long slow climb towards the light: being the child of fading parents is a darker and more uncertain journey, into things of which we would rather not know. But squeamishness blinds us to the growing challenge eldercare, just like childcare, poses for working life.
I say 'just like' but they're not the same, as I quickly realised when I started writing Half A Wife: while originally I thought I'd be able to deal with both challenges affecting working families in the same book, it quickly became clear that eldercare deserved a book of its own (which I very much hope someone else now writes). The demands of looking after elderly parents are perhaps less intensive day-to-day than those of looking after babies, but also less predictable, since you don't know how long illness may last or what path it will take (and you may be hundreds of miles away in a crisis): they're also arguably less well supported by state and employers. You can get tax breaks to pay for childcare that keeps you working, but not for home helps.
As Turner puts it in that piece 'what helps in old age, even more than money, is a clear-eyed but loving advocate to fight for you' - to fill in paperwork, plead for home helps or respite care (in an era of cutbacks, when help is ever more fiercely rationed), keep a beady eye on hospital or nursing home. When the time comes, most of us will want to be that advocate for the parents we love, but it all takes time and energy away from the day job. I do wonder how many of my generation will cling triumphantly to their careers through the baby years, only to crash and burn unexpectedly when it's the other end of the family that needs them.