Long Distance Caregiving
If you live more than an hour away from a loved one who you are now caring for, either as a primary or secondary caregiver, you are not alone. Reports show that more than 7 million Americans are in just this situation, with many also being in the “sandwich generation” that cares for both an aging loved one and their own family at home. Because our society has become increasingly mobile for all age groups – studies show that more than 65% of seniors have moved to a different state in the last 10 years – many caregivers are now facing the challenges of caring for a loved one who lives a significant distance away.
However, with a little planning and a focus on consistent communication, you can reduce some of the stress and challenges remote caregivers face. Here are four top tips:
1. Get organized.
A first great step is to create a binder or collection of contact numbers, important papers, medical records, lists of medications, and local resources that you can keep handy. Be sure to include the basics, like phone numbers and email addresses for family members, doctors for your loved one, dosage instructions for his or her medications, and even a living will or advanced care directives. Consider researching local care facilities in your loved one’s city so that you are prepared for any future situation that might require longer-term hospitalization or rehabilitation. Once you have your binder gathered, make copies for your immediate family members and possibly even current health care providers, and be sure to keep the information updated. These are all items you don’t want to be scrambling to find in the case of an emergency.
2. Plan ahead.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It might be challenging to prioritize making contingency plans, gathering documents, or having difficult conversations about future care if your loved one is currently in good health. But consider the alternative of having to make tough decisions, locate local resources, or search for important documents under the pressure of emergency, especially if your loved one becomes incapacitated and cannot speak for himself or herself. You can often use a situation in your loved one’s life (a friends’ illness) or even a news event (a report on the cost of in-home health care) to open the lines of communication. Everyone makes better decisions when they have time to consider options and respond with thoughtfulness and time; start your preparation today and you will be ready for whatever life brings your way.
3. Build your team and communicate.
Even if you live remotely, today’s technology makes communication easier than ever. Use that to your advantage by proactively communicating to your loved one’s care team often, including your own family members. For example, schedule conference calls with your siblings and other potential caregivers to discuss any changes in health, future plans, or finances. Keep in close contact with your loved one’s medical providers as well, and make it easy for them to update you with any questions or concerns. Finally, designate some “eyes on the ground” – a neighbor, friend, or local relative who can make visits to your loved one when you cannot. Their job, besides making a friendly visit to your loved one, is to visually assess their condition and situation, and report back to you; this is often more effective than a long-distance phone call to your loved one (though you should try to have those regularly, as well, of course!). Advise your observer to watch for signs of change, both in physical health and mood, as well as living conditions (for example, the mail piling up, no groceries in the house, obvious hygiene changes, etc.).
4. Make the most of your visits.
Ideally, you are able to plan regular visits to see your loved one, especially if you are the primary caregiver. Take some time before each visit to talk to your loved one about what he or she needs done, like chores and repairs. Prioritize and come prepared to tackle the top to-dos on your list. While you’re visiting, discreetly check for any signs of a change in condition, as well as potential hazards around the house (rugs that can be tripping hazards, the need for a ramp rather than stairs, etc.). If you are not the primary caregiver, consider ways to lift the load of the primary caregiver by giving them some of their own free time, or even arranging or paying for ongoing palliative care. Finally, be sure to allot time for the very-important task of making new memories with your loved one and supporting his or her emotional needs. For example, they may want to visit an old friend or relative, attend a religious service, visit the library, or simply go for a walk. Don’t neglect these important items when creating your to-do list.
Many long-distance caregivers often feel guilt or question whether they are doing enough for their loved one. Rest assured that you are doing your best and can be a great support even when miles separate you. The fact is, as your loved one ages, you become his or her number one advocate, responsible not only for their immediate wellbeing but for ensuring they live the life they desire into their golden years. Take the time today to prepare, research, and plan to make any future transitions as easy and unstressed as possible.