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Advice for Long-Distance Caregiving Challenges

How to set things up to ensure your loved one remains safe and well


After successfully completing cancer treatments, Julie Eaton’s 81-year-old father wanted to resume living on his own at his home in Albuquerque, N.M. The family, scattered around Kentucky, California and New Mexico, enlisted professional services as well as technology to support his wishes. “(When he passed), every one of us said how technology helped us take care of our dad, no matter where we were,” Eaton says.

In a survey released by AARP, 87 percent of adults over 65 want to remain in their homes or communities as they age. As a result, many adult children are caring for a parent from afar. Whether it’s across the state or the nation, orchestrating care at a distance presents emotional and logistical challenges.

Lining Up Services

If you live more than an hour’s drive from the person for whom you care, you’re considered a long-distance caregiver, according to the National Institute on Aging. Dependable local services and resources are integral to success. Needs will vary based on your loved one’s situation, but common areas to cover include: lawn care or snow removal, grocery and meal delivery, dog walking or pet food delivery and housecleaning.

Vetting is critical. You’ll need trustworthy individuals who will persist should your loved one ignore their call. Seek local referrals from neighbors, your own contacts in the area, senior centers, the chamber of commerce or places of worship. Check online for lists and read reviews.

National and local caregiver support organizations also provide resources and ideas. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging offers this booklet, which you can order online for 50 cents.

Also consider hiring a geriatric care manager, who will oversee things locally while keeping you in the loop.

Informal assistance is also helpful, such as a responsible neighbor willing to check in as needed, or a trustworthy high school or college student on standby for chores or errands. It may be best to stay within your network for these individuals — someone you know and trust.

“There was a fantastic neighbor … I could text her and she would check on my mother,” says Claire-Anne Aikman of Indianapolis, whose mother lived an hour away. “She had a key and my mother loved her.”

It’s also beneficial to look into plumbers, electricians and general contractors before the need arises to call on them. “Better to know who to call, than scramble and take the first person who answers the phone,” Aikman says.

Make Yourself Known

Be sure any individual — professional or informal — knows you are the main point of contact and will reach out if he or she finds anything questionable. Share your contact information readily and keep it easily visible in your loved one’s home. Try to stay familiar with the people in his or her circle; these individuals can offer early clues into changes in well-being.

“My mother had a weekly grocery outing with a very kind friend,” Aikman says. “(My mother) told my son that her friend was now dropping off groceries instead … I asked the friend how long this arrangement was in play, and I learned it had been several weeks.”

Technology Can Help

Today’s technology is an asset to long distance care. Mounted cameras, devices that warn of a fall, motion detectors and refrigerator cameras can offer daily insight into a person’s well-being.

“We set up a camera to monitor (Dad’s) living room and kitchen table,” says Eaton. “We would check periodically from our phones, especially when we knew he would be sitting at the table reading his paper.” In addition to their own peace of mind, Eaton says the cameras made her father feel less alone.

“When I saw he was falling, we ordered something to hang around his neck that would notify (emergency medical technicians),” she says.
Depending on your loved one’s comfort with technology, it could take some discussion and time for him or her to warm up to it. Eaton reports that, initially, her father disliked the fall-alert device; it wasn’t until he actually did have a fall that he was more willing to wear it dependably.

Things Don’t Always Go Smoothly

Once you’ve set everything up, in theory, long-distance caregiving should run smoothly. But in reality, it could be a headache. Your loved one may neglect to charge his or her cell phone. He or she might turn off the motion detectors or complain about the meal delivery. Your service providers may quit due to the uncooperative nature of your parent, or your loved one may dismiss them.

“Understand and act on what matters most to your parent. For example, if someone is very independent, they like to call the shots, appeal to that. Try to involve them in the process and give them options,” suggests Rani Snyder, program director at The John A. Hartford Foundation in New York. “Or if they’re very conscious of finances, be aware of that.”

Dealing With Feelings of Guilt

Caregiving is emotionally draining, but you may face additional feelings of guilt or pressure about the many miles between you and the person you’re caring for.

“Try to offer options. Rather than moving in with you, maybe the parent would consider moving into an assisted living center near you. Or, perhaps set up a regular visitation or phone call schedule, rather than moving closer to them,” Snyder says.

Remind yourself of what’s possible and what best serves you, your loved one and your family, and try to stay within those boundaries.

Supporting another’s health and independence from afar can be exhausting. Applaud yourself for doing the best you can. Remain flexible; if one method isn’t working, don’t hesitate to hire additional help or try a new arrangement.

Signs a Different Arrangement Might Be Needed

Despite your diligent efforts, a more assisted-living arrangement may become necessary for your loved one. Watch for these signs:

  • Worsening health or increasing medication dependencies
  • Increased cognitive decline: forgetfulness, cooking mishaps, household accidents
  • Lack of reliability with eating, hygiene or daily activities
  • Decreasing mobility, lack of coordination, more frequent falls
  • Signs of depression: excessive sleeping, reclusive behavior, poor hygiene, declining interests

Don’t overlook your own side of the situation:

  • You are overburdened with complaints, guilt or unrealistic demands
  • Care efforts are too time consuming or are negatively affecting your professional life or family
  • You are traveling back and forth much more than anticipated

Don’t despair. Make a list of some new options and discuss them with your loved one and any other family members to see what might help ease the problems.

Debbie Swanson
By Debbie Swanson
Debbie Swanson (www.swansonwriting.com) is a freelance writer living north of Boston. She often writes about pet care, senior living and family topics.

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