“My mother is 86 and lives by herself. She’s been pretty independent, but is starting to have some health issues and needs help with daily tasks. My brothers and I all live in other states, so we can’t be there for her. We visit or bring her out to see us when we can, but that doesn’t seem to be the best solution. We’re not sure what to do.”
There’s no doubt — trying to take care of aging parents from a distance is hard. Whether you live an hour away or are caregiving for a parent in a different state, stress and guilt take an emotional toll. Many people find themselves under financial stress, too. Long-distance caregiving can mean spending an average of nearly $12,000 each year in care-related expenses.
ABOUT 15 PERCENT OF CAREGIVERS IN THE U.S. ARE LONG-DISTANCE CAREGIVERS LIVING AN AVERAGE OF 450 MILES AWAY.
Long-distance Caregiving Tips
You can’t be there in person all the time, so what can you do? Here are six strategies for helping aging parents or other loved ones, even when you’re far away.
1. Evaluate What You Can Do
It’s ok that you can’t do everything for your parent. (You might want to memorize that sentence.) No one can do it all. Embrace that, and then look at what you are able to do. What are your strengths? Are you good with money? You can offer financial help, paying bills and managing finances. If you’re an organizer, you could coordinate medical care, organize important documents, or arrange for friends and neighbors to visit or bring meals. Other helpful tasks include family communication, finding local resources for transportation or home maintenance, researching senior living options (including respite care), and giving emotional support. Once you know what you can do, you’ll be able to make a plan that covers the gaps.
2. Explore Different Living Arrangements
Sometimes a parent’s health requires help that’s closer to home. In a few cases, families can make it work by moving closer to the parent. Other families find it makes the most sense to have the parents move closer to the adult children.
If moving is simply out of the question, hiring in-home care — either full-time or part-time — can provide some support. Senior living communities are an option that can provide 24/7 access to health care, assistance with activities of daily living, enriching programs and activities, and a built-in social network that helps combat loneliness. (If you need to start looking for one, you can start here.)
3. Have a Family Meeting
Whether it’s in person, on the phone, or via Skype or FaceTime, gather the family together to get everyone on the same page. You all need to understand what the issues are and what your parent wants. Then you can work out a plan of action that accommodates everyone’s skill sets and schedules. This way, everyone has some agreed-upon responsibilities and knows what to do. Make sure someone has written permission to receive medical and financial information. Once the plan is in place, keep each other updated on changes and issues. What if you’re an only child or have siblings unable or unwilling to help? Then it will be a small family meeting with just you and your parent. You don’t have to do everything yourself (see the previous tip). You can make arrangements for help. Just be sure to involve your parent in the process. Here are some useful ways to get the conversation started and come to a decision everyone is comfortable with.
4. Plan Visits
It’s important that you actually get to see your loved one from time to time. Coordinate with the primary caregiver on the timing of your visit. Ask how you can help them, or give them a break, and find out what your loved one needs. Be sure to spend quality time with your loved one. Join them in their hobbies. It can simple and relaxing, like going for a drive or to the movies, reading together, playing cards, or just having a breakfast date together.
5. Have an Emergency Plan
If your loved one has an accident or other emergency, you need to have a plan in place so you can get there on short notice. Set up a support system of people who can step in for you while you’re gone, whether it’s helping with the kids, the pets or your job. Keep a list of their contact information and agreed-upon roles. You might want to keep a travel bag packed with toiletries and essential clothing, so you don’t have to stop and think about what to bring with you.
6. Stay Connected
Some families schedule conference calls with doctors or senior living community staff to get up-to-date information about their parent’s health. If you have a neighbor who regularly checks on your parent, get updates from them. And, of course, keep in touch. Phone calls and emails are a simple way to reach out, and they go a long way toward keeping your relationship strong.
Distance is a challenge when caring for elderly parents. But it can be made more manageable. With some strategic planning and a team effort, you can make sure your loved one is getting the assistance they need.
Miles Away: The MetLife Study of Long-Distance Caregiving – National Alliance for Caregiving and the MetLife Mature Market Institute
Valuing the Invaluable: The Economic Value of Family Caregiving – AARP Public Policy Institute
Long-Distance Caregiving: Getting Started National Institute on Aging