By Lisa M. Petsche
Approximately seven million Americans are involved in the care of an older adult – usually a parent – who lives in a different area.
At the best of times, caregiving involves a certain amount of stress, but oftentimes the anxiety is compounded when there are many miles between the caregiver and care receiver.
Without question, long-distance caregiving can be emotionally and financially draining. Worries about a parent’s physical, mental and emotional health and safety can be overwhelming at times. You may wonder if plans you have set up are being properly implemented, or if you’re going to get a call that there’s a crisis.
You may also feel guilty that you can’t be there on a daily basis to see how your parent is doing (which may be quite different from what they report) and provide assistance as needed. You might wonder if you should move closer or invite mom or dad to come live with you.
Then there are the financial costs: the many long-distance telephone calls; travel expenses and wear on your car; and perhaps the cost of hiring a companion or personal support worker because you can’t be there yourself. If employed, you may have to take time off work to deal with crises.
Despite these challenges, there are many ways to maintain peace of mind while providing long-distance care. Read on for some of them.
Make it easy for people to get in touch with you. Get an answering machine if you don’t already have one, and perhaps a cell phone or pager as well. E-mail can also be advantageous.
Set up a regular time to call your parent.
Find someone local who can check with your parent daily, either by phone or in person. This could be a reliable neighbor or relative, or even a volunteer from a telephone reassurance service.
Keep important phone numbers handy: your parent’s neighbors, close friends, primary physician, local pharmacy and any home healthcare providers. Ensure all of these people have your name and contact information, and encourage them to call you with any concerns. Stay in touch to get their ongoing perspectives on how your parent is doing, and don’t forget to express appreciation for their assistance.
Shop around for a good long-distance telephone savings plan. You might consider getting a private, toll-free number so that friends, neighbors and healthcare providers have no reservations about regularly calling you.
Maintain a file of key information, such as your parent’s medical conditions and surgical history, medications, medical specialists, banking institutions and other financial contacts, lawyer, clergy, as well as daily or weekly schedule and upcoming appointments.
If your parent has a chronic illness, obtain information from the appropriate organization (for example, the Parkinson Foundation) to help you understand the disease and get an idea of what to expect for the future.
Investigate other available resources in your parent’s community, which might include: personal emergency response systems; letter carrier or utility company alert services; accessible transportation; adult day programs and other leisure programming; outreach services such as foot care and seniors’ dental clinics; home health services involving nursing, homemaking, therapy and companion services; and alternative housing. Such 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 www.eldercare.gov.
When you have an opportunity to visit, pay close attention to your parent’s physical condition, mental functioning and mood. Consult their doctor if you have concerns.
Perform a safety assessment of the home environment to identify potential hazards – for example, throw rugs that don’t stay in place – and do what you can to rectify them. Visit a medical supply store and check out the many products that might make daily activities easier and safer for your parent.
If you have siblings in the area, arrange a family meeting to discuss your parent’s needs and determine who can provide help.
Ideally, plan to stay with your parent long enough so you’re not rushed. That way you’ll have ample time not only to attend appointments (set these up in advance of your arrival) and run errands, but also to enjoy your parent’s company.
Even if they appear to be managing well right now, it’s a good idea to begin learning about resources in the community should your parent require help in the future.
Keeping one step ahead will help make your role as long-distance caregiver a little easier.
Lisa M. Petsche is a social workerand a freelance writer specializing in boomer and senior issues. She has personal and professional experience with elder care.