Thriving as a Long-Distance Caregiver

If you are trying to care for an elderly relative from afar, you’re in good company with your fellow Boomers: about 15 million of you are providing unpaid care to an older adult. It’s no small task to keep someone safe, healthy and happy from a distance, especially when you heap all that on top of your already full plate (dealing with your own nuclear family, your job, and your community responsibilities). But there are ways to manage it all without compromising your own health and wellness. Here are some essentials to keep you from floundering during this long-distance care mission:

  • Become an expert on your aging loved one’s medical conditions
    • Thanks to the internet, you can research a lot about your family member’s illness or condition. Keep an organized file and notebook with notes about symptoms, medicines, treatments and any info that will help you proactively avoid a crisis. If not you, make sure another family member you trust and communicate well with has legal permission to access this patient’s medical and financial records. To keep things simple, one designated family member should be liaising with healthcare providers and sharing pertinent updates in emails or calls to immediate family members. Consider file sharing services like Dropbox or Google Docs to keep appointment schedules and other critical info accessible and updateable for the inner circle.
  • Get and stay organized with your record-keeping
    • Work on gathering the essentials first, like financial statements, wills and life insurance policies. It will also help if someone has a durable power of attorney (the legal document naming one person to handle financial and property issues for another). Your goal is to assemble what will be needed in the event of an emergency while respecting their privacy. There are HIPAA docs you should get signed as well, so you can contact health care providers and take over organizing and paying insurance bills, if needed.
  • Be thoughtful about your upcoming visits with your aging relative
    • Use this visit wisely and try to plan out what you are hoping to accomplish well before your arrival. If you have another relative who is the primary care provider, check in with him or her before you arrive to see what they need from you to pitch in. Communicating in advance will help you set realistic goals for your visit, as well as provide the day-to-day family caregiver with much needed relief.
  • Squeeze in some pleasant time, too
    • Your visit shouldn’t be all business, if possible. After all, you don’t want your loved one to think of you as a task-master. Your trip should be a way to reconnect for both you and your aging relative. Be sure to gauge their comfort with your pick of activities and to be realistic about their mobility, wherewithal and attention span. If they are afternoon nappers, get them home right after lunch so they can stay on schedule and you aren’t a disrupter.
  • Utilizing tech to stay in touch
    • Lots of grandmas and grandpas have had smartphones and smart tablets for a while, so using communication apps on these tools, such as FaceTime or Skype or even texting isn’t totally daunting. For other families, you’re stuck with good old-fashioned phone calls as a means for communication. Whatever tech track your family is on is fine, so long as you are in touch regularly and checking in on each other. Sometimes it works to have a communication plan, like conference calls with your siblings every Tuesday at 7:30 pm or phone chats with Mom and Dad each Sunday at noon. You’ll figure out what works best for your bunch.
  • Sharpen your elder care skills
    • Do you know how to safely move someone from a bed to a chair, or how to help someone bathe? What about how to prevent and treat bed sores? These are new skills you may want to master as your loved ones age and need your help. Just like learning babysitting skills, your local American Red Cross might offer elder care courses. Do your research to find which local nonprofits offer this type of training at an affordable price (or better yet, for free!).