Use this guide for help with one of the most common challenges facing adult children today: long-distance caregiving for aging parents who live far away.
Long-distance caregiving for your parents can be daunting - both logistically and emotionally. Everyday life could be spiraling out of control: your parents could be missing doctor’s appointments, forgetting to refill prescriptions and pay bills, or have too little food in the refrigerator. And because you’re far away, you might not even know what is going on despite your frequent phone calls. Then there’s that constant worry: am I doing enough? Are they really okay? Should I be visiting more often?
Organizing long distance caregiver support that can prevent a crisis - yet spring into action when there is one - can make your life saner while keeping your parents safer. Here’s how to do it.
Setting up a long-distance caregiver support system for your parents
Meet with your parents’ primary physician.
Go to one of your parents’ appointments with their general care practitioner (GP). Explain that you live out of town and that it would be helpful if, during subsequent office visits, the doctor would place you on a speaker or cell phone as he/she explains results and directions to your parents. If your parents see other specialists, request that the GP become the “command center” that coordinates their care.
You can also ask if the GP is willing to exchange emails with you. This is an efficient way to learn about your parents’ health status and to alert the doctor to any health-related changes.
Introduce yourself to the nurse manager, give him/her your contact information and ask that it be placed in your parents’ charts. Before you leave, make sure your parents have signed a HIPAA-compliant consent form that allows the doctor to speak to you regarding their health status, especially during hospitalization.
Make copies of your parents’ medications, physicians’ contact information and health records that detail any medical conditions. Bring them home with you and keep them handy. You can do all of this easily by clicking here.
Get to know your parents’ neighbors and friends.
When you visit, check in with the neighbors, give them your contact information and get their phone numbers. Ask them to alert you if they become concerned about your parents. Stay in touch with these neighbors and friends - they are your eyes and ears in your parents’ home on an everyday basis.
Choose a first responder.
Decide among close friends and relatives who will be the first person to respond in a health crisis - the one who takes care of the situation until you arrive.
Familiarize yourself with the local home health services and aging network.
You'll want to explore the levels of care they provide, the costs and what is covered under a variety of circumstances. Find out if they can send a nurse to assess your parents’ health when a crisis occurs and let you know if medical attention is needed. This gives you a reality check on the situation, so you aren’t jumping on a plane for what turns out to be a false alarm. The local Area Agency on Aging can also help you find a wide range of human services. To find the agency in your area, call the Eldercare Locator at 1.800.677.1116 or go to eldercare.gov.
Treat yourself to outside help.
Don’t burn yourself out by thinking you are the only one who can help your parents. Use your support system. If you have siblings, be sure to share the responsibilities and the expense of hiring someone to come in and assist when needed. If your parents need quite a bit of care managing doctor’s appointments and more, you might want to consider hiring a geriatric care manager. And make travel a little easier on yourself by watching for low airfares that can give you a break from long drives.
Get to know the mail carrier.
Yes, the mail carrier. This is someone who probably knows more about your parents’ routine than you do. For many older adults, mail delivery is the highlight of the day, and that often includes a quick chat with the carrier. If your parents are not present, seem disoriented, or if their mail piles up, the mail carrier will pick up the warning signs and take action. If you'd like the mail carrier to pay a little extra attention to your parents, contact the local post office and let them know you'd like the carrier to keep a watchful eye.
Meet your parents’ bankers.
It's probably a good thing that many older adults are part of a generation that hasn't taken to automatic teller machines. An ATM won't alert you when your mom withdraws a large sum of money or when a stranger accompanies your dad to the bank. Introduce yourself to the bank manager and ask him/her to alert you to any unusual occurrences.
Set up a phone schedule with your siblings and close family members.
Many families tend to call their parents weekly on a particular day - on Sunday, for example. A phone schedule can ensure that your parents receive a call every day of the week from a different person. This is more fun for your parents and provides a more frequent check-up on how they are doing.
The bottom line
Providing care to a parent who lives far away can be challenging and even frightening at times. Having a strong local support system in place can make things easier, safer and more manageable.
Your parents’ doctors, nurse managers, friends, neighbors - even their mail carrier and bank manager - can all be part of a good support system. Meet them, share information and let them help you.