Caring Across the Miles

Tips for caring for a mature adult
By Lisa M. Petsche

Joan recently took an early retirement at 58-years of age, from her bookkeeping job so that she and her husband, Tom, could see more of their children and grandchildren, who are scattered around the country. The couple had also been looking forward to doing some travelling overseas.

In the past year, though, Joan’s mother, who lives alone and is almost three hours away by car, has become increasingly frail and is starting to show signs of forgetfulness. Joan finds herself worrying about her daily and making an increasing number of telephone calls and car trips to check on her. Often, she ends up staying for the weekend when she visits. She and Tom have put their travel plans on hold.

Joan is one of more than eight million North Americans involved in the care of a mature adult —usually a parent — who lives in a different geographic area, be it an hour’s drive or a plane trip away. (The average travel time to reach their relative is four hours).

At the best of times, the caregiving role involves a certain amount of stress, but this is often compounded when there are miles between the caregiver and care recipient.

Indeed, long distance caregiving can be emotionally and financially draining. Worries about your parent’s physical, mental and emotional health, as well as safety concerns, can overwhelm you at times. You may wonder if plans you’ve set up are being properly implemented, or if you’re going to get a call that there’s a crisis.

You may also feel guilty that you can’t be there on a daily basis to see how your parent is really doing and provide assistance as needed. You might wonder if you should be making more sacrifices — either moving closer or inviting them to come live with you.

Then there are the financial costs: the many long-distance telephone calls; gas and wear on your car, or else airfare expenses; and perhaps the cost of hiring a companion or personal support worker because you can’t be there yourself. If you’re employed, you may have to unexpectedly take time off work to deal with crises; some employers are less sympathetic than others.

Despite these challenges, there are many things you can do to help your parent and increase your peace of mind in the process:

Make it easy for people to get in touch with you. Get an answering machine if you don’t already have one, and perhaps a cellphone with text capabilities. E-mail is a must.

Set up a regular schedule of telephone contact with your parent (many people choose Sunday evenings).

Find someone local who can do a daily check, either by telephone or in person. This could be a reliable neighbour or relative, or a volunteer from a telephone reassurance service.

Keep handy important telephone numbers: your parent’s neighbours, close friends, family physician and any home health care providers. Ensure they have your name and contact information and encourage them to call you collect with any concerns. Stay in touch to get their ongoing perspective on how your parent is doing.

Shop around for a good long-distance savings plan so you don’t have to be too concerned about the frequency and duration of caregiving-related telephone calls.

Maintain a file of key information such as your parent’s medical conditions and surgical history, medications and local pharmacy, medical specialists, daily or weekly schedule and any upcoming appointments, banking institutions and other financial contacts, lawyer and pastor..

Investigate available resources in your parent’s community. These might include: emergency response systems; letter carrier or utility company alert services; accessible transportation; adult day programs and other leisure programming; home health services involving nursing, homemaking, therapy and companion services, and alternative housing. (If you don’t know where to start, contact the local community information service or public health department.)

If your parent has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, obtain information from the appropriate organization (for example, the Parkinson Foundation) to help you understand it and get an idea of what to expect for the future. If finances — yours or your parent’s — permit, arrange for installation of a personal emergency response system.

Regularly express appreciation to those who help care for your parent.

When you do have an opportunity to visit, pay close attention to your parent’s physical condition, mental functioning and mood. Consult their family doctor if you have any concerns. While you are there, consider the following:

Perform a safety assessment of the home environment to identify potential hazards — for example, scatter rugs that don’t stay in place — and do what you can to rectify them. Visit a medical supply store and check out the many products that might make daily activities easier and safer for your parent. Alternatively, locate an occupational therapist who does home assessments and can make recommendations in this regard.

If you have siblings in the area, arrange a family meeting to discuss your parent’s needs and determine who can provide help.

Ideally, plan to stay for at least several days so you’re not rushed. That way you’ll have ample time not only to attend meetings (try to set these up in advance of your arrival) and run errands, but also to enjoy your parent’s company.

Even if your parent appears to be managing well right now, it’s a good idea to begin finding out what resources are available in their community should they require help in the future.

Keeping one step ahead will help make your role as long distance caregiver a little easier.

Lisa M. Petsche is a social worker and freelance writer with a special interest in geriatric issues.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Fifty-Five Plus.