According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, an estimated seven million Americans provide or manage care for a relative or friend over age 55 who lives at least an hour away. And those numbers are only likely to increase as society continues to be more and more mobile. Providing help and support for an aging friend or family member can include a wide variety of responsibilities, such as: managing money, arranging for in-home care, providing respite care, or helping a parent move. The very nature of these tasks can be daunting in any circumstance, but long-distance caregiving adds an additional level of complexity to a role that is already challenging at best.
Some Things to Consider
If you are a long-distance caregiver:
- Establish a regular and dependable system of communication
- Get as accurate a picture of the situation as possible
- Recruit a “local” partner to help you best understand what is going on
- Get permission from the person to talk about things with her health care providers
- Learn as much as you can about the disease and available treatments
Providing Support for a Caregiver
If someone else is the primary caregiver, there are numerous ways to provide support:
- Attend a caregiver support group in your area to get a sense of what the caregiver is going through
- Listen . . . You may be the person’s only social contact or emotional outlet
- Ask how you can help . . . many people find it difficult to ask
- Don’t be offended if they say “no.” Sometimes help is not what is appreciated, but validating that you appreciate their work can go a long way
When Should You Go?
How do you know when it is time to plan a visit to see firsthand how things are going? And when you go, how do you get the most out of your visit? Consider a few factors before you go:
- What do the person’s local helpers think about the situation?
- What is your elder’s style? Is a visit really necessary? Does the need exist now?
- Can you afford a trip right now . . . or can you plan ahead to book less expensive travel?
- Can you take time off from work?
- What arrangements would need to be made for spouse & kids?
- What would happen if you delayed your visit or did not go?
Things to Consider When You Go
The National Institute on Aging has published a very useful resource: So Far Away: Twenty Questions & Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving*. The publication lists a number of signs to look for when you visit your loved one. If any one of these factors is present, it may suggest that more help is needed:
- Difficulty managing medications
- Refusal to seek medical treatment
- Poor hygiene
- Not wearing suitable clothing
- Inability to attend to housekeeping
Assessing the Environment
Even if a caregiver returns to the very house that she grew up in and has lots of familiarity with the setting, things change and needs change. Often a fresh perspective is needed when evaluating for safety and security. Consider these elements when assessing the environment:
- Are the stairs manageable, or is a ramp needed?
- Are there any tripping or falling hazards at exterior entrances or inside the house?
- Are any repairs needed?
- Is the house well lit, inside and out?
- Is there at least one handrail on each flight of stairs?
- If a walker or wheelchair is needed, should the house be modified?
- Is there food in the fridge? Is any of it spoiled? Are there staple foods in the cabinets?
- Are bills being paid? Is mail piling up?
- Is the house clean?
Putting a Plan in Place
Long-distance caregiving can be difficult and time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding. The National Institute on Aging* provides a summary of things to keep in mind:
- Find out how you can help
- Gather information about resources
- Encourage the use of outside resources (transportation, meals on wheels, etc.)
- Mobilize family members & friends to be available when the need arises
- Plan your visits – Identify the priorities. You can get more done and feel less stressed
- Spend time with your family member. Take a drive. Go to a movie. Make time to do things unrelated to being a caregiver
- Help your parent stay in contact – make sure they have access to a phone and have your contact information
- Family Caregiver Alliance
- National Institute on Aging Information Center
- Eldercare Locator
- Aging Life Care Association
- AARP Caregiving resource Center
*So Far Away: Twenty Questions & Answers about Long-Distance Caregiving, National Institute on Aging, 2011