Caregiving from afar is no easy task. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind while contemplating caring for your parent from a distance.
Create a Contact List
Assemble address and phone numbers of friends, neighbors, doctors, faith leaders and others in regular contact with your parents who can be reached in the event of an emergency. Include at least one person close by who can easily check in on your loved one. Consider giving this person a key to the home if your loved one approves. If you don’t already know them, introduce yourself during a visit to establish relationships should you need to reach out. Give one copy of this list to your loved one and keep a copy for yourself. These folks may also be able to help out with shopping, transportation or visits.
Collect Important Information Before a Crisis
Keep the following information organized and easy to reach in the event of a crisis.
- Medical records.
- Notes on their condition.
- A list of medications they take.
- Names and phone numbers of all doctors.
- Name and phone number of their pharmacy.
- A list of insurance policies, the carriers and account numbers.
- Company names and phone numbers for all utilities, including electric, phone, cable and Internet.
- A list of all assets and debts (include dollar values).
- Yearly or monthly income.
- Yearly or monthly expenses.
- A statement of net worth.
- Information on bank accounts, other financial holdings and credit cards.
- Relevant legal documents your loved one has or wants to create (i.e. wills, advance directives, trusts, powers of attorney).
- Location of important documents (i.e. birth certificates, deed to home).
- Social Security numbers.
Make Visits Productive
Visiting your parent or loved one should be an enjoyable event. But take advantage of your time together to assess their changing needs.
- Before your visit, decide together with your loved ones what needs to be taken care of while you’re there, including scheduling any necessary appointments.
- Make a list of household items that need to be purchased and, if possible, go out and buy them.
- Allow time to go through mail and old papers.
- Take note of anything out of the ordinary and of what they eat. Check to see what they have in their refrigerator and pantry and if it’s sufficient.
- Look out for safety hazards such as loose rugs, missing handrails or poor lighting.
During your visits, you may start to realize that more help is needed on a regular basis. Think about your parent’s daily needs and whether they are still being adequately met. Are they:
- Socializing with friends and other relatives?
- Attending religious services or other regular events?
- Keeping up with chores or housekeeping?
- Maintaining their personal appearance and hygiene?
- Eating well with a variety of foods in the house?
- Opening and responding to correspondence from insurers, banks or others?
- Paying bills and balancing the checkbook?
- Scheduling and getting to doctor appointments or other important visits?
- Getting out to the store or recreational activities?
- Maintaining the home?
- Taking medication as directed?
If not, consider additional resources to ensure your loved one is maintaining their normal routine and staying on top of finances, mail and medications.
Be sure, however, to spend time enjoying each other's company, too. A visit that is all business won't be good for anyone.
Gather Information on Community Services
Based on your observations and discussions with your parents, you may want to look into services in their community that could help them. Start by using the Eldercare Locator to determine which local agencies provide services where your parents live. It will refer you to the area agency on aging in your parent's community. Look for services that fit the needs of your loved ones as well as an organization that can work with you long distance. Take notes on the services offered, the application process, waiting lists and fees. If an organization requires an in-person interview with your parent, find out what documents you will need prior to the meeting and whether copies will be sufficient. If you can’t be with your parent at the meeting, consider having one of their emergency contacts stand in for you. You might be able to join the conversation by telephone. Make a list of questions you want answered and be sure to have a contact person to follow up with.
Look into Public Benefits Online
You can now go online and safely and conveniently get an idea of the different public assistance programs for which your parents might be eligible. By using Benefits QuickLINK you can find helpful state, federal and private benefits programs available where your parents live. By answering a few questions, you will get fact sheets, applications and websites for programs that can help them save money and cover costs of everyday expenses.
Get Help with Managing the Care
Most communities have professionals who can gauge your loved one’s abilities and needs and set up a plan for care. You can find this assistance through government-funded programs by using the Eldercare Locator. Another option is to hire a private geriatric care manager. A number of employers are starting to pay for these services and, if your family member has long-term care insurance, this might be covered under the policy. For a list of local professionals, visit the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers or the National Association of Social Workers.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Be sensitive to your parent’s view of the situation. At first they may not want strangers in their home, or they may have trouble facing change. Maintain a positive focus, explain how the services will work and that they are designed to help your parent remain independent. If possible, offer to contribute to the cost of care without appearing to offer charity. If your suggestions of service are rebuffed, you can have an objective third party — such as a doctor — recommend the service.
Don’t Forget Your Needs
Recognize the strain that long-distance caregiving causes, and take steps to reduce it. Accept that it's impossible for you to provide all the help your parent needs. Give yourself credit for your efforts to determine needs, coordinate services and offer support by phone and occasional visits. Ask for help when you need it. If you don't feel that other family members are doing their share, consider a family meeting to help resolve any issues. Eat right, exercise and get enough sleep. For more tips on managing the stress of caregiving, click here.
Mail Carrier Alert Program
In some communities, mail carriers or utility workers are trained to spot signs of trouble through the Carrier Alert Program of the U.S. Postal Service. They report concerns, such as accumulated mail or trash, to an agency that will check on the older adult. This is a service of the USPS and the NALC (National Association of Letter Carriers) in collaboration with local non-profits. To find out if there’s a program in your area, contact the local post office or NALC branch office, or ask your mail carrier for information.