When elderly parents need help, the day-to-day responsibilities generally fall to the adult children who live nearby. However, today, more than one in 10 family caregivers live at least an hour away from their parents—and many live much farther away than that. Although long-distance caregivers have many of the same issues that local caregivers do, you also face unique challenges. It’s important to recognize these challenges and develop strategies to meet them, especially as your parents’ needs increase. Fortunately, help is available.
Here are some strategies to help you be an effective caregiver from afar and to give you and your loved ones peace of mind.
Work with your loved one to collect important information before an emergency, if possible. It’s much easier if you have your loved one’s help getting things in order ahead of time. You’ll need to find out whether your parents have advance directives and where they keep important documents, such as:
In addition, gather information about finances, including investments, income sources, and expenses:
Now is also the time for your parents to put a plan in place so that you can pay bills, whether by writing checks or using online banking.
Communication is critical for long-distance caregivers. Stay in touch with your parents regularly. Frequent check-ins, whether by phone or video chat, will alert you to any changes in their routine, give you insights about whether they sound happy or worried, and allow you to listen or watch for indications that they’re in pain or struggling with daily tasks.
You may also need to get information from health care providers. Make sure your loved ones have signed releases to allow their doctors to speak with you, and get their permission to access their online medical records to see test results, medications, and after-visit summaries.
Get contact information not only for primary care doctors but also for specialists and other professional service providers, as well as:
Research your parents’ medical conditions. Learn about what treatments are appropriate for their age, how advanced their illness is, how their condition may change over time, what problems to look for, and how to prevent them. This information will help you ask the right questions and know what warning signs to look for.
Long-distance caregivers need to know what kind of help their loved ones need, which can vary widely and may change over time. As a caregiver, you’ll have to figure out current needs and anticipate future needs. If possible, start by consulting your parents about their wishes and goals—and unless there are safety issues or cognitive limitations, remember that your parents have the final say.
You’ll need help from people who live near your parents. Extended family, friends, and neighbors can help in a pinch or may notice if your parents’ routine has changed, but you may need to enlist professionals to help. Before doing so, you’ll need to figure out how much help your parents need.
Start by consulting doctors, nurses, and other health care providers. Social workers (if applicable) or resident managers (if your parent is in an independent living facility) may also have insights.
Once you know whether your parents need, say, a home health aide for companionship or help with cleaning or meal prep, you’ll have to put together a local team to provide that care. Good options to consider include the following:
One resource that can be particularly valuable to long-distance caregivers is a geriatric care manager (GCM). Usually a nurse or social worker, a GCM specializes in evaluating, coordinating, and arranging care. The services of these professionals are not usually covered by insurance, but your family may find the out-of-pocket expense worth it. GCMs can help in the following situations: