Caring for an Aging Loved One from a Distance

How can I love and care for my elderly mother when we live on opposite sides of the country? My dad died several years ago, and my mom has been in decline ever since. Fortunately, two of my siblings still live within twenty minutes of her home, so I don't worry about her needs being met. But I feel guilty about being so far away.

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American families have always thought that taking care of their own was important. But in our mobile society, family members are more spread out geographically than ever before. It’s not uncommon for adult children to live one or more time zones away from their aging parents. In spite of this, many of them find ways to express their love and offer practical assistance across the miles. In fact, the non-profit Family Caregiver Alliance reports that there are an estimated 7 million long-distance caregivers in the United States. You can be one of them.

How do you go about meeting this challenge? The first thing you need to remember is that, when working from a distance, it’s important to economize energy and expenses. You can do this by working smart and resisting the temptation to act on impulse. In other words, educate yourself and gather the information you need before making a commitment to a particular course of action. If you receive a call from a family member, friend or neighbor informing you that your mom is having some kind of trouble, don’t jump on a plane right away. Instead, make contact with siblings, relatives and your mother’s doctor. (Unless you have power of attorney for your mother, your doctor will need her permission to discuss her medical records with you.) Find out exactly what’s going on. Ask what kind of help is needed, and let the key people in your mom’s life know how they can get in touch with you.

If a trip is warranted, try to arrange it so that you and your mother can meet with her doctor and other professionals who can advise both of you about what to do next. This will establish a relationship with her health-care team and demonstrate that you care. Be specific with your questions, since time is at a premium. The doctor’s office may be able to help you with some requests, such as test results and dates of upcoming treatments. Make an effort to meet personally with your siblings and your mom’s friends.

You should also consider your mother’s feelings before taking any major steps. Most older people fear losing their autonomy or becoming a burden to family members or friends. And making a move can be traumatic for an elderly person. Together with your siblings and relatives, try to weigh your mom’s wishes to live independently against the potential risks of doing so. If dementia becomes a factor, you may not be able to convince her that you have her best interests in mind, but you must do your best to ensure her safety and help her feel secure.

In the absence of any such crisis, remember that staying in touch is the best way to express your love for your mother from a distance. In addition to keeping the lines of communication open, long-distance contacts can actually be an effective way of providing practical elder care. The following ideas are merely suggestions; you can probably come up with a number of other strategies on your own.

  • Use your phone to locate resources for seniors in your mother’s community. You can begin by checking with the
    National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. For future reference, compile a list of the names and telephone numbers of key people in her life – for example, doctors, pastors, the pharmacy, and close neighbors.
  • Ask your mother to follow up on the specific calls you make. Legally, you’ll need her permission before discussing her health with a physician. By asking her permission, you’ll be honoring her and empowering her with a sense of control. If she declines, the doctor will not be able to share specifics, but you can still give information to the doctor.
  • Find a support person – probably one of your siblings – who can keep you up to date on her situation. This may require an occasional trip in order to maintain the closest possible connection. If a sibling or close friend isn’t available, you may pay for this kind of help by hiring a case manager or a licensed social worker to locate and oversee appropriate services. The Eldercare Locator of The National Association of Agencies on Aging can provide information on referrals.
  • Keep a calendar of your mother’s doctor appointments and social activities. This will help you stay involved in her life.
  • Visit as often as it’s feasible for you. At other times, keep in touch through phone calls, letters, photos, videos, and sending little gifts.
  • Use catalogs or online shopping services to buy clothes and necessities for your mom.
  • If one of your siblings is serving as your mother’s primary caregiver, consider contributing to their out-of-pocket costs with a monthly check. To provide your sibling some time off, you may want to take some of your vacation time to go and care for your mother for a week or two. Such respite opportunities are often desperately needed and greatly appreciated by caregivers.

If you feel a need to discuss any of these ideas further, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


Resources

Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

Boundaries

Referrals
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caregiver Action Network

Articles

Conflict Resolution

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