10 Tips for Long Distance Caregiving

10 Tips for Long Distance Caregiving

Being a family caregiver is a rewarding yet challenging proposition. While you might think of a caregiver as someone who is visiting mom or dad every day or even living with them in the same house, there are some family caregivers who look after their elderly parents from far away.

Long distance caregivers who live at least one hour away from their parents make up 15% of all family caregivers.That means there are about seven million long distance caregivers providing an average of 4.5 hours per week of support and coordinating care for an aging parent who lives far away.2

Caring for your elderly parent from a long distance can be challenging, to say the least. It’s hard to look after an aging loved one’s daily needs if you are physically separated, and very easy to worry about what might be happening in your absence. Studies have found that long distance caregivers suffer from more emotional distress and financial difficulty than local caregivers do, and they are more likely to feel guilty or worried about their ability to provide proper care to their senior parent.

But there are ways to be a very effective family caregiver to your elderly parents even if you live many miles away. Though you might already be doing some of these things, such as using an affordable personal emergency response system to protect them from falls or engaging with their doctor through an online patient portal, it never hurts to add helpful tips to your arsenal.

1.      Set a Schedule for Communication

Knowing what is happening with your parents can go a long way toward peace of mind. Regular phone calls and video chats can help you provide emotional support, social interaction, and an opportunity to spot problems before they become big issues. For instance, a regular video chat with your parents can alert you to clutter in the house or something that has changed with their housekeeping routine. Even a simple phone call could be a lifesaver, as you might be able to tell if your loved one is slurring their words (potentially indicating a stroke) or if they are more tense than usual (possibly indicating some sort of emotional woes).

This schedule should be something that works for both of you while still allowing for very regular contact. Perhaps a once-a-day check in phone call and once a week video chat would suffice.

2.      Find Support for Yourself

Self-care is vitally important for family caregivers. It is impossible to pour from an empty cup! Joining a support group or engaging with a friend who is also a long-distance caregiver can give you an opportunity to talk things through with someone who truly understands your situation. Professional counseling might also be a great idea.

3.      Build Support for Your Elderly Parents

After finding support for yourself, secure additional support for your parents. This could be a family member who lives closer than you do who can check on them in person, a trusted neighbor who will keep an eye out for them, or a family friend willing to drop off a casserole once a week. You may engage a senior meal service or transportation service. Your parent’s local Area Agency on Aging or Senior Center will likely be able to refer you to useful services that your parent can access.

You could even hire a professional caregiver to provide scheduled support. That caregiver can keep in contact with you to alert you to any changes or concerns.

4.      Understand Their Medical Needs

Did you know that almost every senior has some chronic condition? According to the National Council on Aging, 95% of all those aged 65 and older have at least one chronic condition and almost 80% have two or more.3 And with chronic conditions often comes medication or supplements to help keep them under control.

When your parent gets a diagnosis of any disease or condition, dive into research. Learn everything you can about the medical situation, the medications necessary for it, any lifestyle changes that need to happen, and how often they need to follow up with their doctor. Then do what you can to help them adhere to their treatment plan. That might include helping them make appointments with the doctor, checking in with them to make sure they are doing the right things to stay healthy, and setting them up with a medication reminder, dispenser, and organizer.

5.      Get Documents in Order

To help your parents as much as possible, you need to have as much information as possible about the areas where they could really use some help. This may mean having access to legal documents, insurance information, and medical records. Depending upon the level of assistance your parents need, you might even want to have financial information and a shared calendar that allows you to do handle things for them from a distance, such as hiring a plumber, a meal delivery service, or someone to mow the lawn. Though it’s helpful to have a physical file, keeping a digital file can make life easier if you need to access information quickly while you are on the go.

6.      Put the Right Permissions in Place

Even if your parents are more than willing to let you help them out, the medical and legal establishments won’t see it that way unless you have the proper documents in place. Ask your parents to sign HIPAA forms that allow you to discuss their medical situation with healthcare personnel. Look into getting access to an online patient portal if their doctors or medical facilities have them so you can communicate directly with their physician and see the history of their appointments.

You should also speak to your parents about making a living will and durable power of attorney for medical care. The power of attorney can provide you with the opportunity to advocate for them if they are unable to speak for themselves. The living will allows them to set forth their wishes for medical care and treatment if they become incapacitated and unable to express what they want.

Depending upon your parent’s situation, there might be other legal, financial, or medical documents to complete. You can get some of this information from their physician, but you might want to speak with a social worker or elder law attorney to make sure all bases are covered.

7.      Make their Home as Safe as Possible

Aging in place home modifications can help ensure that your parents can stay in their home for as long as possible. Some of them are quite affordable, such as installing grab bars in the shower or around the toilet, placing additional lamps and other lighting around the house, and choosing the right medical alert system with fall detection. Then there are the higher-end options, such as renovating the bathroom to include a walk-in tub or a roll-in shower.

Whichever aging in place solutions you choose, they will provide you with some peace of mind. Fall prevention is incredibly important for the elderly, as falls can lead to serious consequences that can land seniors in the hospital.

8.      Find Local Resources to Help Them

Just because you’re caregiving from a distance doesn’t mean that your parent has to be on their own. Meal delivery services, activities hosted by local senior centers, transportation options specifically for the elderly, and home health agencies in their area can lend a helping hand. Research what their options are. Does the senior center offer free transportation or regular meals? Can their local home health agency provide someone who can check on them in person a few days a week? Does their local bus route offer discounts for seniors?

9.      Make Regular Visits

No amount of video chatting can give you the full picture of what your parent’s life is like. The only way to know for sure is to spend time with them, in person, in their home. Traveling to see them might be tough, especially depending upon how far away you live, but try making regular visits a priority. It gives you an opportunity to look over their home and life to find ways to help them even more. But besides that, it provides the chance to wrap your arms around them and rekindle that unique emotional connection.

10.  Be Ready for Emergencies

Though it’s hard to think about, it’s important to be practical about the situation your parents are in. As we get older, we are more prone to falls and accidents. If that happens, you want to be able to help immediately, no matter how far away you are. Have a list of emergency contacts ready to go at all times. Keep an updated copy of your parent’s medical history as well as a list of their medications so you can bring a doctor up to speed if you need to do so.

If you have chosen an affordable medical alert device for your parent, make sure that you are one of the pre-determined contacts that the monitoring center will call if they need assistance. For better peace of mind, opt for a fall detection alarm – the tiny sensors in the device can recognize a fall has occurred and reach out to the monitoring center on your parent’s behalf, without them even having to press the panic button.

If possible, be ready to travel if something does happen. That might mean having some emergency savings in reserve just for that purpose.

Simply Be There

Sometimes the best care you can provide is simply picking up the phone. Call your parent not just to check in on them, but to let them know you love them. And when they call you, answer. Be patient and take the time to listen, even if they are talking about simple things. That’s not just small talk – that’s what is happening in their lives and that is what they want to share with you. The smallest gesture can show them that you are there for them emotionally, and giving that warmth and love is the most important aspect of caregiving.