Tips for Long Distance Caregivers

How to stay connected with your parent's caregiving when you're far away.

young man with senior

First, there's the stress of juggling caregiving logistics. Then there's the communication challenges. And then there's the guilt for just not being able to live closer.

Admittedly, there are a lot of overwhelming challenges when managing care for an elderly parent. But they can be navigated, sensibly.

"Whether your loved one is at home, in an assisted living community or a nursing home, there are many ways to close the geographical gap between you and your loved one and make staying connected and managing his or her care easier," says Mary Stehle, LICSW and Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. Warning that each approach will vary based on your parent's cognitive state and level of independence, she breaks her advice into 2 main strategies: Communication and Management. As for the guilt, she explains, it is often alleviated once a proper care plan is in place.

Staying Connected
As with many things in life, personal connections are valuable, but admittedly trickier to maintain from far away. These tips will help:

  • Meet the caregivers. If possible, meet in-home or care home caregivers face to face, at least once.

    For those in a nursing home or assisted living community: The administrator, nursing director, social workers, activities director, physicians, case manager, and nurses on your parent's floor or unit are some of the key people who will be interacting with your parent.

    For those with in-home care, home health aides, nurses, and doctors may be among those most involved in your parent's care. "Putting a face to a name is invaluable and helps build relationships, which can be incredibly helpful when you are advocating for your parent," says Stehle." On your next visit home attend some doctors appointments with your parent. If another sibling is the primary caregiver be sure to discuss this with him or her, as you do not want to step on toes. If you cannot meet the doctors use Google to research each medical professional and print out their picture and bio. Then you can put a face to the name during your conversations.

  • Get to know the neighbors. If you haven't already, next time you visit, get to know your parent's close friends and neighbors, especially if your parent lives independently. Check in with them regularly to get their perspective of how your parents are doing.

  • Keep in touch. Maintaining close relationships with your loved one's caregiving community is smart, helpful, and easier than ever. Ask them how they would like to keep in touch: email, Facebook, text, daily phone call? Get and use their contact info. Technology is a strong ally.

    "Consistent communication lets your loved one's caregivers know you are interested and involved, often resulting in better care," Stehle notes.

    Skype/Facetime are also easy-to-use, free programs that enable you to video-talk, making conference calls with both staff and family more personal. Consider equipping mom or dad with an inexpensive laptop or a pricier but more portable iPad. Make sure the equipment can be secured when not in use.

  • Be "visible." Make sure mom and dad have plenty of family pictures, greeting cards and kids' art displayed in their room.

    "See that your loved one is surrounded with familiar items of their choosing, and that people see him or her as an individual with various interests and a family who cares" Stehle suggests. (Get more tips on building a personal connection with caregivers>>)

  • Network. Many religious organizations offer outreach to seniors. Local fraternal organizations or clubs like the Lions or AFW might also be willing to visit or call your loved one. Many communities have friendly visitor volunteer organizations. If your loved one is in a nursing home or assisted living community, ask staff to offer ideas or simply Google nearby groups.

  • Be thankful. Thank your parent's caregivers, friends and providers often. Send thank you notes or a quick email when you observe special care. Order holiday gift baskets for nursing staff and home health aides. Let people know that their help is truly appreciated.

Practical Management
One of the biggest challenges families face is managing their parent's sometimes complex affairs long distance. Here are some helpful strategies.

  • Have a plan. Outline the major responsibilities involved in your parents care and develop a system to keep everything organized-including items like regular doctor's appointments, bills and account information and activities, along with dates, intervals and the names of those responsible.

    It's also helpful to have an emergency action plan. What if your parent is hospitalized? Who will be first to respond? Be sure emergency contact information is current, that everyone knows their role, and that your parent's health care proxy and living will documents are accessible. While it's a sensitive and difficult topic, be sure you know your parent's end of life wishes.

  • Put it in writing. Sometimes it's clearer to put your thoughts in writing. If you have questions, concerns, or preferences about your parent's care, write them down.

    Written communication is helpful when you live at a distance, but you also want to be especially sensitive to tone and clarity, since there's more room for misunderstandings. Phone communication is best when there are major concerns.

  • Share the caring. If you have siblings or other close family members, be sure to share the responsibility of caring for your loved one.

    "Even if you don't feel overwhelmed today, it's wise and healthiest to begin forming your care team early so everybody is ready for the inevitable bumps in the road," Stehle advises.

    Division of labor can be based on geography, talents, finances, interests or on a rotating basis. Honest, direct communication is important.

    "For instance, the sibling living nearest can attend occasional face-to-face care meetings or visit more regularly, one might be handy with minor home repairs, while another sibling can manage the finances," Stehle suggested.

  • Schedule a regular care management call. In addition to casual check-ins, schedule regular conference calls with key points of contact. Frequency and length may vary depending on your parent's condition.

  • Hire an advocate. Near or far, many people find it helpful to hire an independent advocate to help oversee care. Some areas offer free advocacy services through their local area agency on aging based on eligibility. Contact your local government or ask the care home for information. Geriatric care managers are also be an option.

  • Be creative. Online services like Gotomeeting.com enable you to work on your parent's computer remotely-to pay bills, write letters, etc.-while they watch and instruct you from the comfort of their location.

While great distance may separate you and your loved one, you can close the gap more easily than ever before with these simple strategies.

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