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How to Be a Partner in Family Caregiving Even From Afar

Ways to support loved ones and their local caregivers when you can’t be there in person

spinner image caregiving from afar two women talking via laptop across opposite sides of a map

As many family caregivers know, caring for our loved ones can be an exhausting, all-consuming task whether they live with us or not. However, long-distance caregiving presents an additional set of obstacles caregivers must face while attempting to support loved ones without the benefit of being there to give hands-on help.  

Long-distance caregivers have the same concerns and pressures as local caregivers, and they also have the highest annual expenses (about $8,728) compared to co-resident caregivers (about $5,885) or those who care for a loved one nearby (about $4,570) and also need to take uncompensated time off work, and pay for travel to visit their loved one.

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Over the past three years, my sister and I have shared caregiving responsibilities for our mother, who suffers from dementia and advanced Parkinson’s disease. As my sister is local (in Wisconsin), she and her family moved in with our mother to care for her at home. For the past three years, I’ve split my time between their home in Wisconsin and my apartment in New York and I fly my mom out to stay with me several times per year to give my sister a break.

Though I spend many months of the year providing hands-on care for my mom, my sister still took on the bulk of the work simply because, until our mom moved into a memory care facility a few months ago, they lived together. As a result, her caregiver burnout was greater than mine, so I wanted to find more ways to help.

Establish access

To best care for a loved one from afar, you need to have access to their accounts and you be authorized to make decisions on their behalf. In our case, we hired an elder care attorney and got much of our mom’s paperwork in order while she was still relatively sharp cognitively. My sister took on medical power of attorney (POA) and I had financial POA. Establishing this power early on is the only way that we could support our mom after her health deteriorated substantially. To facilitate this, start by initiating those difficult money conversations and organize and fill out necessary paperwork.

spinner image Cassandra and her mother, Beverly
Cassandra and her mother, Beverly.
Courtesy Cassandra Brooklyn

Help is only a call (or online search) away

My mother went through several home health aides throughout the course of her illnesses; Medicaid paid for some but we paid most out of pocket. The aides’ schedules were erratic and they often canceled, so securing care required near daily communication. Because this could be done from anywhere, I handled the bulk of it. If one caregiver told me she had to cancel, I would contact another caregiver to see if they could cover. Instead of stressing my sister out with the details, I wouldn’t loop her in until I had found a replacement (or until she needed to know that no replacement could be found).

When transitioning our mom to the hospital and then rehab, I extended my stay in Wisconsin and handled all communication with medical staff. After I flew back home to New York, we had to move our mom into a long-term memory care facility. Though I live 900 miles away, I still coordinate most of her doctor’s appointments and the medical transportation to/from these appointments. When possible, I schedule her appointments to take place when I’m in town so I can accompany her. I oversee her finances, pay her credit card and medical bills online, and I am the primary point person for her Medicaid case manager.

Clinical psychologist and Santa Clara University professor Shauna Shapiro warns that “the unique pressures of long-distance caregiving, combined with our own critical self-judgments and high expectations, can significantly amplify stress levels. Supporting friends and family who are caregiving from a distance is essential because they face a complex blend of emotional, logistical and often financial stressors that can be overwhelming.”

Shapiro notes that the support can come in various forms, including emotional encouragement and hands-on assistance. It will also help the caregiver deal with issues stemming from isolation. When I’m home in New York, whether my mom is with me or not, the only thing that helps ease feelings of sadness and solitude is knowing that I have friends who care about me and who want to help, be it physically or emotionally.

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Trading tasks to ease the burden

Online research can be extremely time-consuming, so taking on that role for a friend or family member can be a tremendous help. No matter where I am, I always have my computer. That way, I can pitch in at a moment’s notice and take one thing off my sister’s never-ending to-do list so she is freed up to be there for our mom. I’ve helped by researching summer camps for my sister’s kids, calling to check availability and applying for scholarships and grants to get them in. When her refrigerator broke, I researched replacement models and called shops to confirm wait times and delivery windows.

One of my best friends, who also lives in Wisconsin, saw our struggle and wanted to help. In addition to occasionally picking up my niece from school and taking her on playdates to give my sister a break, she helped with research projects, finding companies that could reupholster our mom’s couch, even sending color samples for us to consider. She also looked into overnight care for our pit bull so we could take the entire family on an accessible family vacation to Indianapolis.

Utilizing technology

Smart devices and remote monitoring can help preserve the independence of an older adult aging in place by setting up fall detection devices, medication management and other handy services that allow you to have (virtual) eyes on your loved one.

spinner image adel grober and her mother ronel with their neighbors marie and louis
Adél Grobler, and mother, Ronel Grobler, with their neighbors Marie and Louis
Credit: Courtesy of Adél Grobler

Adél Grobler, a New York City–based publicist, cares for her mother, Ronel Grobler, 81, in her home country of South Africa. For Grobler, technology has been a key part of caring for her mother, who suffers from an undiagnosed form of dementia. A few years ago, she installed TeamViewer on her mom’s laptop so she could access the computer remotely (for free). Because her mom struggles with technology, she uses TeamViewer to log in to her mother’s laptop remotely to accept the weekly Skype and Zoom calls she initiates from New York.

Grobler also researched restaurants and grocery delivery services near her parents’ home and set up accounts with them. Now she can easily order and have food delivered, including prepared meals that her mom just has to heat up.

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Create a caregiving team

Grobler says that assembling a support team on the ground, having regular communication with them through group emails or tools like FaceTime, Zoom and Skype, and ensuring they feel appreciated has been critical to ensuring ongoing care. She noticed that her mother’s neighbors were “becoming amazing ‘snitches’ — when there were issues that my mom did not want us to know about (but we actually really needed to).” To show appreciation, she got the neighbors’ contact info so she could send them thank-you cards and gifts.

She also saw that her mom’s sister-in-law was pitching in a lot, so Grobler set up a monthly stipend and a “scope of work, of sorts” to show appreciation and understanding of all the time she spent driving her mom around to appointments. Grobler believes that feelings can get hurt when there is an expectation of support, so she “found that making it a slightly formal arrangement to show that we valued her time has really made the lines less blurred.”

To facilitate the hands-on support her mom’s care team was providing, Grobler created several “boldly printed cheat sheets,” including one with contact details for herself, her mother’s doctor and other important people. Even though her mom now has trouble with her eyesight, she can have someone else read and call the numbers off the sheet, which her mom keeps near the phone. Grobler also created a sheet listing her mother’s illnesses, medical details and prescriptions. One copy is near her mother’s bed, another is taped to the back of the front door, so any emergency personnel who might enter the home will quickly spot it.

Be attuned to the in-person caregiver’s personal needs

Caregivers don’t just need help caring for their loved ones, they need help so they can care for themselves. When you spend the entire day cooking, cleaning, driving, dressing, feeding, bathing and handling medical appointments for a parent, that doesn’t leave much time for yourself, especially if you’re also caring for children.

Cassie Wilkins, a freelance writer in Australia, cares for her mother, Nikki, 63, who lives in the U.K. primarily by providing relief and support to her father, the primary caregiver. Her mother suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s and becomes very lonely and anxious when she’s alone, so for years, she spent several hours on the phone with her mom nearly every morning while her dad is at work.

Whenever I visit Wisconsin, I assume all aspects of care for my mom, from getting her dressed and helping her eat and to assisting with bathing and driving her to appointments so my sister is totally off-duty. I also take on as many household and family chores as possible, including driving my niece and nephew to school and to extracurricular activities, cleaning gutters and washing loads of piled-up laundry. I’ve found that even if you can’t be there in person very frequently, whenever you are there, you can make it count.

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