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Long-Distance Family Caregiving Reimagined

The pandemic is paving the way for a better remote care experience

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Caregiving from a distance is a daunting job. Pre-pandemic long-distance caregivers already knew the challenges of supporting the well-being of a loved one without being locally available for hands-on care. And now, they've been presented a slew of previously unthinkable obstacles.

Caregiver advocates suggest that you employ home health aides and companions as part of your trusted care team. At the moment, though, and for the foreseeable future, you may have difficulty hiring such a service due to a lack of workers in the industry. Your remote care recipient may be on a waiting list through Medicare or still unable to hire on a private-pay basis through a service. The lack of workers may prompt families to consider facility or community living instead of aging in place.

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It's also harder to find and enroll in facility care than it was before the pandemic. Caregivers are wrestling with implementing a move from private homes to community environments, for fear of exposing their loved ones to the coronavirus. They can't physically tour the communities to find the right fit and are struggling with the reality that they won't be able to visit in an unfettered way (and certainly won't be able to just drop in).

And it's true that there is no substitute for face-to-face time with someone you love, particularly when you are their caregiver. However, you may not be willing or able to travel because of your own health or logistical concerns or for fear of exposing your loved one to illness.

At this point, your care partner may be living in an isolated manner, whether by choice or circumstance. We know that isolation is bad for mental health and longevity, but many are limiting their interactions with others and time spent in public spaces.

It's not an easy time. And yet, in the fog of an unfolding and uncertain pandemic, I see a brighter future for remote caregivers.

Despite all these challenges, caregivers are rising to the occasion. The advice and techniques historically used by remote caregivers are still sound (plan ahead, assemble a local care team, and so on). But the way we apply some of this advice is beginning to take a different approach than in the past.

Adapting to changed circumstances

Remote caregiving in a time of limited contact and restricted movement means that we should always have a plan B (and a plan C for good measure!).

That means having a care team assembled before you need it. Bring together your family and advisers now to talk through your care partner's immediate, one-year and long-term plans, if you haven't already. This should include an aging-in-place plan, a change of residence plan, a disaster plan and a facility care plan, depending on your care partner's current needs and abilities.

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With the shortage of workers in the home health industry, don't wait to look for helpers. If your loved one needs assistance, consider whether a retiring nurse or individual companion can do the job. Also, seek out volunteer services in your loved one's area; AARP launched a Community Connections page that may connect you with local help.

When considering facility care, use placement services that will help you vet communities that are appropriate for your care partner. They can help you decipher ratings, amenities and care levels, and work with you to set up a video tour. Make connections within the facilities so that you know whom to call and how they have been ensuring the maximum amount of communication between residents and families.

Virtual caregiving tools can make the job easier

Technology advances are a blessing for the remote caregiver. There are so many more tools than even just a few years ago. Using smart devices to set up fall prevention, and medication management apps and other handy services will help you “put eyes on” how your care partner is managing. If your care partner and you agree to use it, remote monitoring helps preserve the independence of a person aging in place.

Family dashboards and communication platforms like Slack, Google Chat and Microsoft Teams, among others, allow your care team to work in a cohesive way. When I first started caregiving, not many people had embraced text messages or emails to communicate. I received and made so many phone calls on any given day of caregiving that I constantly thought about tossing my phone out the window. Instead, having one central way for the care team and care partner to correspond is a huge help and takes the burden off the primary caregiver to retain and relay information. If the care partner is capable of participating, this will also help stave off feelings of isolation.

Even if you're not tech savvy, embracing these technologies will benefit your whole care team. Look for a class that will pair you with a technology mentor and provide lessons and services to set up your devices and software.

While you're upgrading your caregiving tech, confirm your care partner has the correct legal documents in place to give you the legal authority to help him or her virtually. This should include specific access to your care partner's digital assets and accounts should you need it, as well as providing necessary documents to your care partner's care team (doctors, financial advisers and so on) so that your relationship is established and you can work seamlessly together if the time comes.

Lessons learned in schools and in the workforce

Caregivers can also take a page from the rapidly changing playbooks of virtual education and workplaces. Just as educators and employers have had to find new ways to keep people working and students learning, caregivers must find new ways to coordinate, collaborate and care for their loved ones from afar.

More employers are expanding leave for employees who are caregivers. Discuss your leave needs with your employer and determine whether you can use leave time to attend to ongoing and emergency needs of your remote care partner.

Ask your employer for an accommodation to work remotely when caregiving duties call. Now, more than ever, employers are willing to entertain this type of accommodation request. This may assist you in handling remote caregiving tasks or even give you the ability to make a face-to-face visit with your loved one, while still maintaining your employment.

Just as more workplaces shut their physical locations to permit employees to work from home and students elected to attend virtual school rather than in-person, you may ask yourself whether remote caregiving is still necessary or desirable for you. If it meets everyone's goals and abilities, consider merging households or making a modification to your or your loved one's property, such as creating a tiny home or in-law suite, so that you can make extended visits or other relatives and members of your care team can spend more in-person time together.

A small blessing of the pandemic is that long-distance caregiving may become easier than ever with the use of technology and an expansion of living and working remotely. Someday, when the worst of the virus is in the rearview mirror, we will have established new and helpful ways of communicating and advocating for our loved ones, whether they're across town or across the world.

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