Long-Distance Caregivers: Making the Most of Your Role

Kate is concerned about her mother, a recent widow who lives alone in Kate’s childhood home in Fairfax County. Although Kate lives in Massachusetts, she grew up in Northern Virginia and it’s where her mother feels most comfortable. Kate’s mother’s decline in health since her father died requires Kate’s help and attention, but due to her job, her husband’s job, and her son’s therapy appointments, she cannot relocate, but visits as often as possible. Kate is beginning to realize that caregiving at a distance presents very real challenges, and she’s beginning to wonder if she can truly be of enough help from afar.

Similar to Kate, approximately 76 million of us are baby boomers, many with parents who are approaching a time in their life that will require aid and assistance. Currently, an estimated 43.5 million Americans provide or manage care for a relative or friend 50+ years or older. And this number is growing every day. The good news is that with so many of us involved in care from a distance, there’s lots of ways to help.

There are many things that Kate, in our example, and others in similar situations can do as long-distance caregivers:

  • Arrange for in-home care—hire professional caregivers or home health or nursing aides and help get needed durable medical equipment;
  • Provide emotional support and occasional respite care for a primary caregiver, the person who takes on most of the everyday caregiving responsibilities;
  • Serve as an information coordinator—research health problems or medicines, help navigate through a maze of new needs, and clarify insurance benefits and claims;
  • Keep family and friends updated and informed;
  • Create a plan and get paperwork in order in case of an emergency;
  • Evaluate the house and make sure it’s safe for the older person’s needs;
  • Help with finances, money management, or bill paying;
  • Plan ahead and locate care in an assisted living facility or nursing home.

Keep in mind that over time, as your family member’s needs change, so will your role as long-distance caregiver.

How Can I Stay Connected from Far Away?

Even if you’re a long-distance caregiver, you can still stay connected to your loved one from far way. A good first step in doing so is to find people who live near your loved one, such as friends and neighbors, who can provide a realistic view of what is going on.

Many families schedule conference calls with doctors, or the assisted living facility team, or nursing home staff, so that several relatives can be in one conversation and get the same up-to-date information about health and progress.

You may also want to give the person you care for a cell phone (and make sure he or she knows how to use it). Or, if your family member lives in a nursing home, consider having a private phone line installed in his or her room. Program telephone numbers of doctors, friends, family members, and yourself into the phone, and provide a list of the speed-dial numbers to keep with the phone. Such simple strategies can be a lifeline. But try to be prepared should you find yourself inundated with calls from your parent.

Geriatric care managers (also called Aging Life Care Specialists) also may be able to support you in your role as a long-distance caregiver. Visit our trusted referrals of other senior-serving professionals for people who can help.

How can Long-Distance Caregivers Make the Most of Visits?

Getting assistance for when you can’t be there is helpful and provides peace of mind. But what about the times when you are around? How can long-distance caregivers make the most of their short, infrequent visits with loved ones?

First, talk to the care recipient ahead of time and find out what he or she would like to do during your visit.

Then, check with your loved one’s primary caregiver, if appropriate, to learn what he or she needs, such as handling some caregiving responsibilities while you are in town. This may help you set realistic goals for the visit.

Remember to actually spend time visiting with your family member. Try to make time to do things unrelated to being a caregiver, such as watching a movie, playing a game, or taking a drive. Finding time to do something simple and relaxing can help everyone—it can be fun and build family memories. And, try to let outside distractions wait until you are home again.

Where can I find resources for my family member?

Are you a long-distance caregiver? Searching online is a good way to start collecting resources. Here are a few potentially helpful places to look:

Eldercare Locator, 1-800-677-1116 (toll-free)
Family Caregiver Alliance: National Center on Caregiving
Handbook for Long-Distance Caregivers: An Essential Guide for Families and Friends Caring for Ill or elderly Loved Ones
The National Institute on Aging
So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving
Tips for Long distance Caregivers

When More Help is Needed

What happens when your loved one needs more help than you can provide? Nursing homes in Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. Metro area cost $10,000 – $14,000 per month (a few thousand less in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area), which can be catastrophic even for wealthy families. By being proactive and helping your loves ones plan for long term care in advance, you can help make sure your loved ones always receive the care they need without worry or financial struggle. You’ll further avoid many costly legal headaches that often result when people are not prepared for incapacity or ongoing care needs. It’s never too early or too late to get started. Reach out to us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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