Helping a Caregiver from Afar

By Lisa M. Petsche

If you have a frail parent who lives in a different area and is cared for by a close relative – such as your other parent or a sibling – you may feel guilty that you can’t be there to share the load. But even though you’re not available to give hands-on assistance on a regular basis, you can still help the primary caregiver with meeting your parent’s needs. Some ideas for how to do this are included below.

Practical help
  • If your parent has a chronic illness, gather information to help the caregiver – and the rest of your family – understand the disease and get an idea of what to expect for the future.
  • Research and share information about available resources in your parent’s community, which might include: visiting library service, meals on wheels, friendly visiting, volunteer driver programs, accessible transportation, recreational programs and home healthcare services. Also gather information about services that help caregivers – such as support groups (some may offer concurrent care), day care programs and nursing facilities that offer short-term residential care – and encourage the caregiver to take advantage of them. Information can be obtained from the local Area Agency on Aging. (To find the appropriate office, call the Administration on Aging’s toll-free Eldercare Locator Service at 1-800-677-1116 or search online at http://www.eldercare.gov.)
  • Give the caregiver a subscription to a caregiving magazine, or clip and send articles about caregiving that contain practical information (behavior management or self-care strategies, for example).
  • Give the caregiver a gift membership in a caregivers’ organization or the non-profit organization associated with your parent’s health condition (for example, the Alzheimer’s Association or Parkinson Foundation). Membership benefits usually include a newsletter and access to other valuable resources.
  • Organize a telephone call-out chain so important information about your parent’s health status and needs can be shared among family members in a timely fashion.
  • Offer to come and stay with your parent so the caregiver can take a vacation.
  • Ask what kind of help the caregiver could use most. Depending on your financial situation, you may be able to cover or at least contribute towards the cost of one or more of the following potential needs: medical equipment, such as a bath bench or a walker or wheelchair; home adaptations; a house cleaning service; yard maintenance service; specialized transportation; respite care, such as a personal support worker or companion, a day care program or residential respite; or a vacation for the caregiver (anything from a weekend away at a bed and breakfast to a flight overseas to visit relatives or friends).
Emotional support
  • Arrange a regular time to call. Shop around for a good long-distance savings plan so you don’t have to concern yourself with the length of conversations. With each contact, ask not only how your parent is doing, but also how the caregiver is coping. Don’t forget to express appreciation for all that the caregiver does for your parent.
  • Encourage the caregiver to call you (collect if necessary) with any concerns. Make it easy for him or her to get in touch with you. Get an answering machine if you don’t already have one, and perhaps a cell phone as well. E-mail may also be advantageous.
  • Listen to the caregiver without judgment and don’t give unsolicited advice. Provide encouragement.
  • Send a card or note to brighten the caregiver’s day. Include a humorous anecdote or cartoon clipping.
  • Periodically surprise the caregiver with a treat, such as a movie, a music CD by a favorite artist, fresh flowers, a basket of specialty foods, toiletries or other pamper items, or a gift certificate to a restaurant that has delivery service.
  • Encourage the caregiver to accept offers of help and to ask for assistance when needed. (Even if other family members live nearby, don’t assume they are pitching in.)
  • Support the caregiver if he or she decides to place your parent in a care facility. The decision is a very personal and difficult one, and often is followed by feelings of guilt. Trust that the caregiver has done his or her best and has exhausted other options, and do whatever you can to help with the transition. Plan a visit to assist the caregiver with touring facilities and narrowing choices, or to help your parent settle into the new residence.

Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.

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