Long-Distance Caregiving

Up until fairly recently, most families lived in the same community generation after generation. They could share the responsibilities that go along with caring for older family members. But today, we live in a much more mobile society. Families are often spread out from one end of the country to the other. They still stay in touch, but they do it by phone, e-mail, and occasional visits.

So, when a parent or grandparent needs care and support, or when a care crisis occurs, you come face to face with the challenge of long distance caregiving. If this describes your situation, here are some practical suggestions for understanding your family member's needs and working with friends, relatives, and professional service providers to make sure those needs are met.

Assessing Your Situation

The first step for staying involved as a caregiver, even at long distance, is to be well informed concerning the issues and the resources available to deal with them. You need to talk to those who are on the scene. Ask lots of questions. Listen to what people are telling you. Make notes you can refer back to.

The information you gather plays a key role in planning and managing care. Discuss what you learn with other family members and the professionals who are involved. Your sources of information might include:

  • the person you're concerned about
  • family members, friends and neighbors living close by
  • apartment or other residential manager
  • the person's doctor or other care provider
  • perhaps the person's clergy, lawyer, accountant, or other advisor
  • a social worker or care manager familiar with the person's situation and care plan

Make a note of the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of anyone who can help keep you informed. And be sure to let them know how to contact you, if something happens that you should be aware of.

Making a Plan

Once you have a feel for what the issues are, it's time to begin figuring out what your role can and should be. Here are some points to keep in mind as you do this planning:

  • Make sure all the right people are involved during the planning process—other family members, professionals, and especially the person you are concerned about.
  • A top goal is to support the person's maximum level of independence. His or her self-esteem, dignity, and health status are all best served by remaining an active, informed decision maker for as long as possible.
  • Set priorities for your involvement. You may not be able to get involved in all the issues you've identified. Decide what's most important and what offers the best match for the time and effort you're able to give.
  • Be realistic in your goals and expectations. Some eldercare issues can be resolved. Others may be here to stay.
  • Remember, caregiving responsibilities often call for teamwork. If other family members are on the scene and are doing more than you are able to do, find ways to acknowledge the greater role they are playing. Ask their help in finding practical ways in which you too can help.

What About a Geriatric Care Manager?

As you prepare to get more involved in care, even though from long distance, it's nice to know there is an entire network of eldercare support services out there to help. For example, a growing number of long distance caregivers find it helpful to work with a private care manager. This is a professional—often with a nursing or social work background—whom you hire to help you assess caregiving needs and coordinate eldercare services. Involvement can be on a one-time basis (for example, in lining up a residential placement for rehabilitative care, assisted living or nursing home). Or it can be an ongoing relationship in which the care manager stays involved as advocate and care coordinator. To find a private care manager in your area, ask your Area Agency on Aging for a referral, or go to the website of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers.

Staying Close, Despite the Distance

Sometimes, small things contribute to a sense of being in touch. For example:

  • Old-fashioned letter writing is never out of style. Take the time to bring your loved one up to date in this way. Encourage others in the family, including grandchildren, to write letters, make audio or videocassettes, or send photos.
  • Make it easier for your relative to write back by pre-addressing and stamping envelopes to yourself and other members of the family. Get in the habit of calling or having your relative call you on a regular basis. Provide the person with calling cards. A cell phone and voice mail can help you keep in touch if the person is out.
  • What about e-mail or Skype? Seniors are one of the fastest growing groups when it comes to computer use. Find out whether your relative has e-mail or can get it. If so, make sure friends and family have the person’s e-mail address, and encourage them to use it.