Heath and Aging

So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving

Points to Remember

moon and stars

My mom's a widow, and I realize that it's time for me to become more involved in her life. So far, my sister has been doing most of the work. What are the most important points to remember as I begin?

Start by checking with your sister; ask what would help her the most. And talk to your mom to see if there is something special you can do for her.

Caregiving can be difficult and time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding.

Learn. Ask your friends who are involved in caregiving if they have suggestions about ways to help. Find out more about resources where your mom and sister live that might be useful for them. Develop a good understanding of your mom's health issues and other needs.

illustration of hand and heart

Visit as often as you can. Not only might you be able to notice something that needs to be done and can be taken care of from a distance, but you can also relieve your sister for a short time.

Caregiving—whether long-distance or hands-on—can be difficult and time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding. Even from a distance, you can help make your mom's life easier.

Some Good Ideas

If you find yourself in the long-distance caregiving role, here is a summary of things to keep in mind:

  • Know what you need to know. Experienced caregivers recommend that you learn as much as you can about your parent's illness, medicines, and resources that might be available. Information can help you understand what is going on, anticipate the course of an illness, prevent crises, and assist in healthcare management. It can also make talking with the doctor easier. Make sure at least one family member has written permission to receive medical and financial information. To the extent possible, one family member should be the one to talk with all healthcare providers. Try putting together a notebook, on paper or online, that includes all the vital information about medical care, social services, contact numbers, financial issues, and so on. Make copies for other caregivers, and keep it up-to-date.
  • Plan your visits. When visiting your parent, you may feel that there is just too much to do in the time that you have. You can get more done and feel less stressed by talking to your parent ahead of time and finding out what he or she would like to do. Also check with the primary caregiver, if appropriate, to learn what he or she needs, such as handling some caregiving responsibilities while you are in town. This may help you set clear-cut and realistic goals for the visit. For instance, does your mother need to get some new winter clothes or visit another family member? Could your father use help fixing things around the house? Would you like to talk to your mother's physician? Decide on the priorities and leave other tasks to another visit.
  • Remember to actually spend time visiting with your family member. Try to make time to do things unrelated to being a caregiver. Maybe you could rent a movie to watch with your parents, or plan a visit with old friends or other family members. Perhaps they would like to attend worship services. Offer to play a game of cards or a board game. Take a drive, or go to the library together. Finding a little bit of time to do something simple and relaxing can help everyone, and it builds more family memories. And keep in mind that your parent is the focus of your trip—try to let outside distractions wait until you are home again.
  • Get in touch, and stay in touch. Many families schedule conference calls with doctors, the assisted living facility team, or nursing home staff so several relatives can participate in one conversation and get up-to-date information about a parent's health and progress. If your parent is in a nursing home, you can request occasional teleconferences with the facility's staff. Sometimes a social worker is good to talk to for updates as well as for help in making decisions. The human touch is important too. Try to find people in the community who can provide a realistic view of what is going on. In some cases, this will be your other parent. Don't underestimate the value of a phone and email contact list. It is a simple way to keep everyone updated on your parents' needs.
  • Help your parent stay in contact. For one family, having a private phone line installed in their father's nursing home room allowed him to stay in touch. For another family, giving grandma a cell phone (and then teaching her how to use it) gave everyone some peace of mind. You can program telephone numbers (such as those for the doctors, friends, and yourself) into the phone for speed dialing contacts. (You might also provide a written key to the speed dial numbers to keep with the phone.) Such simple strategies can be a lifeline. But be prepared—you may find you are inundated with calls from your parent. It's good to think in advance about a workable approach for coping with numerous calls
  • Learn more about caregiving. Whether you are the primary caregiver or a long-distance caregiver, getting some caregiving training can be very helpful. As with a lot of things in life, many of us don't automatically have a lot of caregiver skills. Training can teach you how to safely move someone from a bed to a chair, how to help someone bathe, how to prevent and treat bed sores, as well as basic first aid, for example. Information about training opportunities is available online. Some local chapters of the American Red Cross might offer courses, as do some non-profit organizations focused on caregiving. Medicare and Medicaid will sometimes pay for this training. Contact the Eldercare Locator.
  • Gather a list of resources in the care recipient's neighborhood. If you are familiar with computers, searching the internet is a good way to start collecting resources. Having a copy of the phone book for your parent's city or town can also be really useful. The "Blue Pages" provide an easy guide to state and local services. Also check with local senior centers for lists of sources of help. The National Institute on Aging's website, www.nia.nih.gov/health, offers an online list of more than 300 national health and aging organizations, including contact information.

 

Publication Date: June 2011
Page Last Updated: March 24, 2014