Family caregiving offers enough challenges when you and your aging parent live in the same city. When your parent lives far away, the separation makes it even more difficult. Despite the distance, you can remain involved in your parent’s caregiving with these six suggestions for effectively maintaining an active role.
Define Your Role
“Even when siblings are all living near Mom or Dad, everyone needs to have a role,” says Molly Carpenter, author of Confidence to Care and part of the resources and training team for Home Instead Senior Care.
When several siblings live both near and far from their parents, Carpenter recommends that everyone gather to create a game plan for their parent’s care. “What are each of you good at and what are you not good at? Then look at the distance to help determine what each person can do,” she says.
The sibling who lives closest may be the logical choice as the direct care provider, but siblings who live out of town can still offer valuable support. Identify the responsibilities that you can handle remotely and divide them amongst those at a distance. “They can do things like refilling medications or taking care of finances. The idea is to divide the workload so that the person who lives the closest or in the same town is not overburdened,” says Carpenter.
Keep Communication Lines Open
“Communication is key,” Carpenter says. “The sibling who lives the closest is going to have a lot of information, so you need to figure out: How often do you want to check in? How much information do you want to know? It’s important to establish what that cadence should be and to make sure that all the siblings touch base on a regular basis.”
Carpenter speaks from personal family experience, since her mother and aunt were the caregivers for her grandmother. “My mom was the long-distance caregiver, while my aunt lived where my grandmother was,” Carpenter reports.
Carpenter’s mother initially felt out of the loop because she wasn’t close enough to participate in the day-to-day caregiving. “But she and my aunt came to an agreement of ‘Let’s talk every Friday at eight o’clock in the morning.’ They figured out pretty early that they needed a regular check-in point.”
In addition to communicating regularly with their siblings, long-distance caregivers should maintain regular and predictable communication with their parent. This worked out well for the Carpenter’s family situation. “My mom called my grandmother every morning at 7:30 and every night right after Wheel of Fortune,” Carpenter reports. “So, when the phone rang every evening at 7 o’clock, my grandmother knew it was my mom.”
Carpenter also stresses the need to fine-tune your communication style. “When we call our older parents, we tend to say, ‘Did you do this? Did you do that? How are you feeling? Are you okay? Did you fall?’ We’ve got to be careful that we don’t turn into this person who is just ‘checking up’ rather than having a regular conversation.”
Fortunately, we live in a technological age that makes long-distance caregiving easier to accomplish. No matter how far away you live, you can go online to research Assisted Living options, explore caregiving resources such as adult day centers or in-home care, or pay your parent’s bills. “You can even go online to order your parent’s groceries,” Carpenter says.
Technology also gives you more options for staying connected with your parent, including the ability to have a face-
to-face conversation via Skype or FaceTime. You can also use Skype or conference calling to participate in doctor’s appointments and get a firsthand report of your parent’s health.
Have In-Town Surrogates
If you don’t have a sibling or close relative to serve as an in-town caregiver, develop a network of individuals who can be your eyes and ears to assess your parent’s caregiving needs.
“Think of it as another team approach, but with people who are not in your family,” Carpenter says. “So, neighbors would be No. 1 on my list. I also think of those regular appointments and visits—for instance, the hairdresser, the pharmacist, obviously your parent’s doctor or nurses.”
All of these people can keep you informed. Additionally, if your parent attends weekly church services, Carpenter recommends checking in with fellow churchgoers. “Ask questions like, ‘How do you think Mom’s doing? Have you noticed any changes?’ If the churchgoer says, ‘I saw her there, and she looked great,’ you can use that to verify that everything is okay.”
Carpenter also advocates the idea of having someone come into the home to check on your parent’s condition. It could be someone from Meals on Wheels or a professional caregiver who provides assistance a few days a week. “It doesn’t have to be all the time, but frequently enough for someone to evaluate the living situation. They can look around and see: Is there clutter piling up? Is the mail being opened? What’s the condition of the refrigerator? Is there old spoiled food? These are the things a professional caregiver can monitor on a regular basis.”
Plan Regular Visits
If you and your siblings live out of town, get together and work out a schedule of visits. This can help you determine whether things are going well for your parents or not. The latter scenario is why Home Instead Senior Care typically receives an uptick in calls during the holidays. “That’s when family members come home and see what the situation is, and often times they’ll realize, ‘Uh-oh, Mom’s been slipping,’ ” Carpenter explains.
By making regular visits home, family caregivers can determine whether in-home assistance is required or if a move to an Assisted Living community is the best course of action to assure the parent’s health and wellbeing.
Ditch the Guilt
Because you’re not living close to your parents, you may feel guilty that you aren’t participating in your parent’s care as much as you would like. “There’s absolutely going to be guilt,” Carpenter concedes. “There’s usually no way around that, but you have to remind yourself that people have to live their own lives.”
If these feelings become overwhelming, Carpenter suggests that long-distance caregivers seek out support groups and online communities. “Sometimes you just need a sounding board to relieve some of the stress, guilt and anxiety you may be feeling.”
To dissipate any guilt, focus on what you are doing for your parents—e.g., calling them daily, participating in caregiving decisions, and scheduling visits as often as time and your budget permit.
“You’ve got to give yourself a break,” Carpenter says, “and keep telling yourself you’re doing everything you can.”
SHARE YOUR STORY: How do you handle your role as a long-distance caregiver?