The Trick to Long Distance Caregiving

Key to successful caregiving: Be prepared before a crisis occurs

By Susan Suben

CaregivingIn past articles, I’ve shared with you my caregiving journey with my mom. I took care of her long distance for 10 years when she lived in New York City. I visited her once a month, hugged her, communicated with her doctors, scheduled her home care, managed her finances and helped her move into assisted living then a nursing home.

Long distance caregiving is challenging. Guilt, sadness and frustration are just a few of the emotions that can wash over you. The physical drain of traveling back and forth as well as its cost can take time away from your family and job.

The trick to long distance caregiving is to be prepared before a crisis occurs. Put strategies in place so that the transition is easier for both you and your parents. Gather information. Get organized. Be a field agent to see how they are coping with day to day living. Have “the conversation” to find out what their wishes are should they become ill.

Even though I consider myself young and healthy, I have started to put together a binder with important information for my son so that he will have everything he needs to help me care for myself when the time comes.

Consider doing this for your adult children and I recommend you encourage your parents to create a binder for you. You may find some resistance from your parents. They may feel you are invading their privacy or suggesting they are not capable of managing their lives. Try to dispel those thoughts by assuring them that you are not trying to run their lives but rather that you want to be able to support them during a time of need just like they’ve supported you throughout your life.

The binder should have basic information and copies of their birth certificates, social security and Medicare cards, and any military records.

The most important documents/directions to have in the binder are a power of attorney (POA), living will and health care proxy.

A POA is a legal document that will delegate authority to you to make property, financial and other legal decisions for your parents. Without this document, you will not be able to make any transactions/decisions should your parents become incapacitated.

A living will ensures that your parents’ medical wishes are honored. The document states how your parents would want to be cared for in an emergency or if he/she is incapacitated. The living will covers such topics as resuscitation, desired quality of life and end of life treatments, including treatments that they do not want to receive.

Lastly, the health care proxy is a medical power of attorney that lets your parents appoint you to express their wishes and make health care decisions if they are not able to themselves.

The binder should also include a contact list for doctors, attorneys, financial advisors, accountants and banks with addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and account numbers. You can easily photocopy business cards and financial statements for all income sources, deeds, assets, investments, pensions, etc.

A list of health conditions, medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, and pharmacies should be documented and updated as needed.

Utility companies should be noted as well just in case you have to assume responsibility for paying invoices.

This is the gathering and organization phase of preparing to take care of your parents from a far.

However, your most important role is field agent when you visit them. This is the time you will see firsthand how they are living. Are they well-groomed? Is the house clean? Is the refrigerator full? Are they performing their activities of daily living well? Do they seem forgetful, depressed or anxious? Are they engaged in outside activities?

If you notice subtle changes that cause concern, having “the conversation” becomes even more paramount. Knowing what difficulties they are experiencing or what their fears are will help you address them. Be patient and understanding. Don’t diminish who they are or what they are capable of.

Maybe it’s just a question of talking to them more often or planning more visits that correspond with accompanying them to the doctor. Maybe they need someone to help clean the house or mow the lawn.

As time goes by, they may need to move to a smaller home…maybe even an assisted living community. It might be a good idea to contact the office of aging to learn about senior living facilities or local geriatric case managers who can be your eyes and ears while you are not there

Long-distance caregiving is difficult. But there is no single way to be a caregiver. Understand what your strengths, weaknesses and capabilities are. Plan accordingly so that you and your loved one can both live quality lives as caregiver and care recipient.

Susan Suben, MS, CSA, is president of Long Term Care Associates, Inc. and Elder Care Planning. She is a consultant for Canandaigua National Bank & Trust Company. Contact her at 800-422-2655 or by email at Ideas for this article came from Sheila Cevera’s presentation, Alternative Solutions for Long Term Care.