Seven million of us wait for the call heralding disaster. “Long-distance family caregiving is a fact of life for [7 million] Americans,” reports the MetLife Study of Long-Distance Caregiving. If you live an hour or more away from someone you are caring for this is you. From personal experience, I know how hard this can be.
Information, or the lack of it, causes the most concern. I only know what I am told by others, since my Mom can no longer speak for herself. Even if your parents are at an earlier stage of aging, and are still living independently, you might be worrying about a lot of possibilities that could quickly add up to a life-changing calamity. The risk of a parent falling and lying in place for hours is the chief concern when a parent lives alone. When one parent is caring for a chronically ill spouse, the stress on the “well” parent can be so great it causes their own rapid decline, creating a volatile situation which might appear more stable than it actually is. Little problems in your aging parent’s daily living, like forgetting to take medications or eating a poor diet, can cause dramatic effects on their health, even to the point of emergency trips to the hospital.
If you have both long distance and local family members, consider assigning the long-distance caregiver to the role of handling financial and money management, arranging professional caregivers, navigating insurance issues, and providing respite care for family members involved in day-to-day caregiving. Local family members can provide more in-person needs. If everything will be done from a distance, here’s some practical advice from the National Institute of Health on long-distance caregiving.
Build a Local Team
The team can consist of a combination of your younger family members, your loved one’s friends and neighbors, professional caregivers, your loved one’s doctors, and the nurses in those offices, the local pharmacist your loved one prefers. These are the people who will call you with information or questions and be on-the-ground resources.
Make a Master File
Managing someone else’s life takes careful documentation and resource gathering. Gather:
- Doctors/Nurses; phone and fax numbers
- Pharmacist; phone and fax numbers
- Contact information for neighbors and friends
- Medications taken: List over-the-counter, prescription, vitamins and supplements, herbal teas, favorite foods (like spinach or grapefruit). Knowing all this is necessary for preventing medication-to-medication interaction and food-to-medication interaction.
- Research on the various medical conditions your loved one has. Know symptoms, prognosis, and likely course of the condition so you can plan for future care needs.
- Basic identifying data of your loved one:
- Full legal name and residence
- Birth date and place, birth certificate
- Social Security and Medicare numbers
- Employer(s) and dates of employment
- Education and military records
- Financial Data:
- Sources of income and assets; investment income(stocks, bonds, property)
- Insurance policies, bank accounts, deeds, investments,and other valuables
- Most recent income tax return
- Money owed, to whom, and when payments are due
- Credit card account names and number
Location of the following:
- Safe deposit box key and information
- Location of valuables in the home (do an inventory if you will bring caregivers in.)
Key legal documents:
- Will, beneficiary information
- Durable power of attorney
- Living will and/or durable power of attorney for health care
Arrange Legal Authority
If you are the sole/or in-charge family member, you need power of attorney (POA) for financial, legal and medical matters. Larger families often split these responsibilities, giving a local member the medical POA, and the long distance caregiver the legal and financial POA.
Medical alert necklaces/call buttons, web cameras on computers for real time visuals of your loved one, medication boxes with timers, and wireless monitoring systems for the home (in development), will help you check in on loved ones who are still independent.
Schedule Personal Visits
Meet with key members of your support team. Evaluate the state of your loved one—are they well cared for? Are their surroundings clean and safe? Is it time to change the level of care your parent receives?
Long distance caregiving is not easy. Find people you trust to lay eyes and hands on your loved one. Remember, people want to help, so when they ask, be ready with one or two suggestions. If you don’t have local connections, hire professional care management and care caregivers. Sharing the caring is key.
Sources: National Institute on Aging: So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving, and Distance Tough on Caring for Family, Pamela Yip, Dallas Morning News