Distance caregiving is new baby boomer challenge

Mandy Merkel, MMSc, CCC-SLP

By Mandy Merkel, MMSc, CCC-SLP
Senior Resource Consulting
Atlanta, Georgia
404-786-7789

Member of the national ElderCare Matters Alliance,
Georgia chapter

After my parents retired to Florida, we thought things would be fine; if something happened to them, we could hop on a plane and take care of things.

Unfortunately, it was not that simple.  Dad broke his hip and needed short term rehab – unbeknownst to us, he had been taking care of Mom as her dementia advanced.

Like many parents, he had kept us in the dark about how much she depended on him and like many children, we chose not to see the realities of her decline.

Now we were in a crisis:who would take care of Mom while Dad was in rehab?  None of us lived closer than a plane ride away – all of us with jobs and families of our own.  How would we deal with this?

Long distance caregivers increase

About 7 million adults are long-distance caregivers, mostly caring for parents who live an hour or more away, according to the National Institute on Aging.

If you are or might become a long distance caregiver, develop a plan before a crisis occurs.  The plan should include emergency information, options for care (in home vs. relocation), and available resources.

Here are some steps to consider:

  • Discuss the care plan with family members.  Explore ways to share responsibilities.
  • Adjust as circumstances change.
  • Meet the professional care providers – physician, home care worker, nursing home staff, and others.
  • Develop an informal care and support network.  Ask relatives, friends, and neighbors to look in on the care recipient and call you if they notice problems.  Talk to professional counselors, too.
  • Keep in touch with the formal and informal caregivers.  Make sure they know how to reach you.
  • Look for savings and discounts for long-distance phone and travel.
  • Prepare for emergencies.  Be ready to travel on short notice.
  • Discuss and make legal and financial arrangements.
  • Be realistic about the care recipient’s care requirements and how much care you can provide.
  • Balance your long distance caregiving responsibilities against your other obligations, such as your health, family and work.

The family team

When working as a team, agree in advance how your skills can be complementary.  Try to take on tasks best suited to your skills, but be realistic about how much you can and are willing to do.

For example:

  • Who is best on the phone, finding information, keeping people up-to-date on changing conditions, and offering cheer?
  • Are you good at supervising and leading others?
  • Are you comfortable speaking with medical staff and interpreting what they say to others?
  • Is your strongest suit doing the numbers – paying bills, keeping track of bank statements, and reviewing insurance policies and reimbursement reports?

Consider your limitations.

  • How often, both mentally and financially, can you afford to travel?
  • Are you emotionally prepared to take on what may feel like a reversal of roles between you and your parent – and to respect your parent’s autonomy?
  • Can you be both calm and assertive when communicating from a distance?
  • How will your decision to take on care responsibilities affect the rest of your family and your work?

Resources

Join a caregiver support group, either in your own community or online to help relieve your sense of isolation and give you a chance to exchange ideas.

Use a Professional Geriatric Care Manager (PGCM), a health and human services specialist who helps families care for older relatives by evaluating needs and coordinating care.

When interviewing a geriatric care manager, you might want to ask:

  • Are you a member of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers?
  • How long have you been providing care management services?
  • Are you available for emergencies?
  • Does your company also provide home care services?
  • How will you communicate information to me?
  • What are your fees?  Will you provide them in writing?
  • Can you provide references?

Many long-distance caregivers describe feeling guilty about not spending enough time with the elder.  Making a care plan will help your peace of mind.

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