Mary hung up the phone. The caller from the Florida alert center had said that her father’s medical alert bracelet had been activated. Paramedics had gone to his house and had taken him to the hospital. Mary was grateful for the alert system, which covered fires, break-ins, and falls. However, since she lived in New Hampshire, she faced a dilemma: Should she make emergency plans to fly to Florida immediately?
Follow-up phone calls revealed that her father, who’d had a COPD “exacerbation,” would be hospitalized for at least a week. Patricia and her siblings, all of whom lived several states away from their father, activated his local church network to bring him needed personal items right away. The siblings put together a plan by which the nearest one would go to Florida right away and another one would spell the first one after a few days and so on, so that their dad would have one-on-one home family care for the next month. During this time, the siblings decided they would compare notes, talk things over with dad and his doctor, and decide as a family if he could continue to age in place.
Welcome to the world of long distance caregiving. It is not an easy world, but about 7 million people in the United States are long distance caregivers today.
About 7 million people in the United States are long distance caregivers today.
Since even large global financial transactions are now handled remotely, technology-enabled long distance caregiving has become easier and has many advantages, as well as disadvantages. Here are a few tips on how to make this growing trend work best for you and your loved ones.
- Realize that while long distance caregiving is less disruptive to your life than on-site caregiving, it is not as easy as it may appear.
Busy modern lives with the many responsibilities and activities that they entail are hard to interrupt. Long distance caregiving often allows a caregiver to keep a normal life intact at most times. However, during emergencies like the one in Mary’s family, geographical separation adds to the stress. Plane tickets, rearranging work schedules to include travel time, packing, knowing when to go in order to maximize the time spent with the loved one, arranging for childcare if necessary, in addition to the haunting fear that an elderly loved one may feel frightened and alone after a health setback or may die without family nearby, are stresses that weighs on the long distance caregiver when a health crisis occurs.
As is often the case, careful planning makes things go more smoothly. Keeping an emergency bag packed for such occasions, keeping an employer informed about the needs of an aged one, having your own local support network in addition to a local one for your distant loved one will go a long way toward making emergency “landings” smoother.
- Realize that you may not know the whole story until you go there.
Your elderly loved one may have been putting on a brave face by phone, claiming to be fine, but private conversations with doctors, evidence of spoiled food or burned pans around the house, unexplained weight loss, or a rapidly declining neighborhood may not be evident until you see for yourself. When you visit, be vigilant. Talking honestly with your loved one’s neighbors or friends may help—there may have been a fall or other incident that you did not know about.
- Realize that in our virtual world much can be handled remotely, but not instantly.
If you have power of attorney or even just permission from your loved one, you can handle finances, medical records, prescriptions, arranging nurse’s visits and home health care aides’ schedules and even purchases of groceries from many miles away. However, these remote tasks take almost as much of your time as they would if you lived close to your aged loved one.
These remote tasks take almost as much of your time as they would if you lived close to your aged loved one.
- Learn to play your family’s strengths like a master violinist.
Everyone provides something useful when a family pulls together to help an aged loved one. Yet, it doesn’t hurt to know everyone’s strengths and limitations and take those into account. If Aunt Myrna has the best bedside manner but the worst driving record, she should do more one-on-one care than running errands. If grandson Billy makes everyone laugh but gets restless after 20 minutes, take that into account. If Uncle Brian is great with addition and subtraction but knows nothing about investment, he should balance the loved one’s checkbook but leave the stock market trades to others.
Most aged people long to stay in their own homes as long as they can. Many do very well there, better than they would do in an institution. With a flexible and strong support system, they can stay in their homes longer, even when caregivers live at long distances.
National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health. So Far Away, Twenty Questions and Answers about Long-distance Caregiving. Available online at https://d2cauhfh6h4x0p.cloudfront.net/s3fs public/so_far_away_twenty_questions_about_long-distance_caregiving.pdf