- By Winnie Yu
If you're looking out for a parent in declining health who continues to live alone, and who resides more than an hour's drive away, consider yourself a long-distance caregiver. It's a hard role to fill alone, but an informal network of eyes and ears can provide crucial aid. These supporters can be neighbors, friends, parishioners, even a mail carrier or the pizza delivery person.
Predictability can make it easier to keep track of a parent’s activities, and to tell quickly if something is wrong, says Carol Bradley Bursack, author of Minding Our Elders (McCleery and Sons, 2005). When you're on the scene, commit some time to following your parent's routines and seeing who they interact with daily or weekly. Identify and get to know those people, who could become part of your network.
If, for example, your mother goes to the bank every Monday morning, her regular teller may take notice if she doesn’t come in one day. Next time you have the opportunity, accompany your mother to the bank, meet the teller, and consider giving him or her your phone number. Your efforts shouldn't be a secret from your parent. "Explain that it’s for safety, and that they’re not intruding, just checking on her,” says Gail Hunt, president and cheif executive of the National Alliance for Caregiving in Bethesda, Md.
These strategies can help as well:
Find out who delivers to your parent. Anyone who makes regular deliveries to your parent, like a mail carrier, paperboy or supermarket carrier, is a potential source of help. If these people notice mail and newspapers piling up, or if no one answers the door, they can call you, or call for help. Similarly, those who provide services, like a maid or landscaper, can play a pivotal role in looking out for a loved one, along with people who are trained to notice signs of trouble, like visiting nurses or Meals on Wheels crews.
Consider the example of Jean Wilson, 82, of Memphis. For years, she had called in almost daily orders from her local Domino's pizza shop. Then, back in February, she took a fall in her home on a Saturday, and was unable to reach a phone to call for help. On Monday, when her regular order didn't come in for a third straight day, Domino's delivery person Susan Guy, who herself had experience as a family caregiver, went to Wilson's house to check on her. When Wilson didn't answer knocks on the door and window, Guy called 911. Rescue workers found Wilson and credited Guy with saving her life.
(MORE: Henry Cisneros Wants to Design Cities for All Ages)
Enlist the community. When you visit your mom or dad, make a point of saying hello to their neighbors, advises Linda Rhodes, author of The Essential Guide to Caring for Aging Parents (Alpha, 2012). "Exchange phone numbers so you can call them if you become concerned about your parent, or so they can call you," she says. If you and your parent are comfortable with doing so, give a reliable neighbor a set of keys. Check in with your parent's house of worship as well. Many churches and synagogues now draw on volunteers who check in on elderly people in the community.
Take advantage of technology. For long-distance caregivers, technology can be a vital tool for keeping an eye on aging parents. One of the best options is a personal emergency response system, typically a push-button alarm worn as a necklace or bracelet. Your parent can set off the alarm if he or she falls, alerting a 24-hour call center to summon help. (Next Avenue recently wrote about the best of the new tracking technologies. Click here to learn more.)
You can also set up a monitoring system in your loved one’s home, using motion-sensor technology to track a parent's movements, and alert you to anything unusual. If no movement is detected for an extended period of time, the system will contact you or send an alert to your phone or computer. "Set it up in an area they spend a lot of time in, such as the kitchen, or wherever they take their meds," Bursack says. You can pay a company to keep an eye on your system, or arrange to do the monitoring yourself on your computer.
Regular phone calls can be a powerful tool as well. Rally your siblings and other relatives, and your parent's friends, to check in on your mom or dad through a weekly phone call, which also helps combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. You can even make a calendar of when you expect your parent to receive calls and from whom. If any of the callers come to have worries about your parent, or don't have their calls answered, they can call you — and you can do the same.
Do your part. Look around your own community or social or professional circles and see if an elderly person living alone might benefit from your help. Make it a point to drop by and offer help with raking, laundry or errands, all of which can be the beginning of an ongoing conversation. "Encourage a friendship, rather than acting like you want to be a caregiver," Bursack says. If you should build a relationship, discover how to reach out to the person's adult children in case of trouble, just as you'd want someone to do for you.
Winnie Yu is a journalist who has contributed to magazines including Woman’s Day, Health, Prevention, and Scientific American Mind. She is also the author of several health books, on topics including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and arthritis.