Strategies for Long-Distance Caregivers

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.

Collect—or Create—Important Documents

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:

  • Life insurance policies
  • Wills and/or trusts
  • Powers of attorney for health care and financial decisions
  • Health care proxies
  • Long-term care insurance policies
  • Veterans benefits or discharge papers (such as DD-214 forms)
  • Health insurance cards and claims forms

In addition, gather information about finances, including investments, income sources, and expenses:

  • Investment accounts
  • Pension funds
  • Bank accounts (checking, savings, credit cards)
  • Mortgage or rent payments
  • Property taxes and/or homeowner association fees
  • Utilities
  • Car payments
  • Insurance premiums (life, health, car)

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.

Stay Informed

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:

  • Pharmacies
  • Hospitals
  • Lawyers
  • Financial advisers and accountants

Do Research

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.

Assemble a Team and Delegate

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:

  • Asking local friends
  • Finding a senior center or a local agency on aging
  • Using an elder care locator
  • Exploring services offered by local churches, synagogues, or mosques

Geriatric Care Management

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:

  • Your loved one has limited support or lives far away from family who can help.
  • You have suddenly been plunged into a caregiving role by an illness or other medical crisis, and you need help getting up to speed.
  • Your loved one has several medical conditions (including behavioral health issues).
  • Your parent is no longer able to live alone safely but is resistant to change or losing their independence.
  • You are burned out.
  • Family members have different opinions about the best way to care for your loved one.
  • Family discussions about care are tense.
  • You need help untangling your loved one’s financial or legal affairs.
  • You need help navigating the elder care system and finding the resources your loved one is entitled to.

Caregiver Support Services from VNSNY