If you are coping with the frustrations, concerns and guilt that often accompany long-distance care giving, you are not alone. Recent estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association indicate that more than 3 million adults provide assistance remotely for ailing or vulnerable relatives, usually aging parents.
Making sure Mom and Dad are well cared for is a difficult challenge; doing so from many miles away has its own set of issues. What happens in an emergency? Are medications properly administered? Who’s there to lend a hand with the activities of daily living?
It’s no wonder common care-giving stress intensifies when involvement is from afar. Oftentimes, aging parents fear “being a burden” to their adult children, so they fail to be forthright about their declining health. Parental pride, privacy and sometimes embarrassment may also prevent adult children from really knowing the severity of a situation.
Still, taking stock of your parents’ needs—ideally before a predicament arises—will help everyone involved.
- Discuss care choices as a family. Find out what your parents want assistance with now, and what kind of help is available in the future. Your parents’ needs will change, so this is the time to explore services and resources within the community.
Who can help with grocery shopping and errands? What if the house cleaning becomes too much to handle? Who can be trusted to answer any financial questions? Together, compile a list of names and numbers with important contacts, including doctors, neighbors, senior center liaisons, etc. Encourage your parents to maintain as much independence as possible, but learn as much as you can about any resources available.
- Establish a circle of community support. Alert long-time friends, neighbors, family members—even the mail carrier—about your parents’ condition, so you have a network of people to call if you need someone to check in with them. Encourage those in your support system to visit regularly, or if possible, set up a schedule detailing who will stop by during the week.
You can also enlist help from local churches, civic groups and volunteer organizations. They may provide transportation, companionship or meal delivery. Make sure all of your contacts have your phone number in case they spot a problem.
- Ask your parent if you can go along to a doctor’s appointment. When you’re in town, this is one visit that’s definitely worth your time. Get to know your parents’ doctors, nurses and any social workers on staff. Talk with your family beforehand about questions and concerns, and take notes on what the medical staff recommends.
Work with your parent to draw up a list of each medication being taken, and review that list with the doctor. Establishing a relationship with your parents’ doctors will make talking with them easier down the road. Also, medical staff may have inside information on valuable community resources.
- Evaluate in-home safety. When you visit, walk through the house room-by-room with your parents and look for possible hazards and safety concerns. Loose rugs, furniture in a walkway or newspapers, electrical cords, plants on the floor could pose as a problem.
Check the lighting in each room, and make sure adequate lighting exists for late-night trips to the kitchen or bathroom. Evaluate the safety of the handrails and stairs, the bathtub and toilet and any potentially dangerous belongings such as weapons, tools or medications.
Making needed home improvements now will offer more peace of mind in the future.
- Keep in touch often, via phone, e-mail or letters. Some families find it valuable to purchase a cell phone for their parents (Don’t forget to teach them how to use it!) in case of an emergency. Others program important numbers into the speed-dial to make the calls less of a hassle.
Most long-distance caregivers would like to spend more time with their parents, but frequently connecting by phone may be the most viable option. Stay alert for any warning signs that your parent may require additional care. Look for opportunities to communicate by mail and e-mail. Send pictures, cards and interesting articles. And above all, remind your parent of your constant love and support—no matter the distance between you and them.