Long Distance Caregiving
Published in The Caregiver's Home Companion
In the past two years, I have witnessed the declining health of my parents. My mother is in a nursing home after a brain aneurysm rupture, and my father is disabled and is battling cancer.
What makes this time especially hard for me is geographical distance: I live 600 miles away from my parents. I wish I could be nearer Mom and Dad to help them manage this difficult part of their life with dignity and comfort. I’d also like to support my brother, who lives near my parents, as he helps them with day-to-day living.
I’m not alone in my dilemma. Many Americans find themselves having to assist ailing relatives from far away. After doing some reading and talking to local resources, I found that there are several things that make long-distance caregiving more effective.
1. Build an informal network in the place where your parent lives. Are there friends, neighbors, or clergy who are in regular contact with your parents? Make a list of names, addresses and phone numbers, being sure to ask your parents for ideas. Then introduce yourself in a friendly note or phone call, and keep in touch regularly. I discovered that my parents’ friends and fellow church members were very willing to stop by and visit—and even to provide hot meals—sometimes without being asked. But with phone numbers handy, we could alert each other to any changes.
2. Tap into local agencies on aging to find out about helpful community resources. These agencies (whose services are available to everyone, regardless of income) have assessment tools to help determine what sorts of assistance your parent might need. Perhaps your parent can’t manage the cooking—the agency can arrange for meals on wheels. Or if your parent needs help with housework, the agency can find a homemaker to come in and clean. The agency will arrange for any needed services and even conduct follow-up visits.
3. Make the most of your visits. If you know you’re going to be able to travel to see your parents, have a plan. Phone your informal network and the agency on aging to schedule meetings or visits. There might also be other things you need to accomplish: Do you need to install grab bars in the shower? Planning and phone calls in advance might make this work go smoother. And be sure to spend time with your parent, too. Go for a walk, listen to music together, or just sit and talk. Good pre-planning means more time for a relaxed visit.
4. Do what you can from home. Long-distance caregivers can also help out from far away. You might offer to do the finances. You can do research on the disease or disability your parent has and pass along the information to others. I’ve offered to be the official contact person for my parents’ church and the agency on aging. Long-distance caregivers can also is offer emotional support to their parent—by phone, letters, or e-mail. Mom has said she likes getting my weekly letters. And if there is a local caregiver, be sure to let that person know how much you appreciate what they do.
5. Take care of yourself. It’s easy for a long-distance caregiver to feel guilty, wishing they could do more. If you’re feeling very overwhelmed, find someone to talk to about your feelings. A lot of people feel like they’re going through this alone, but they don’t need to feel that way. There’s lots of support available—that’s one thing I’ve certainly found in my research.
Eldercare Locator Service (to find Area Agency on Aging): 800-677-1116
Heath, Angela. Long-Distance Caregiving. Colorado: American Source Books, 1993. Out of print, but may be available in your local library.
Berman, Claire. Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parent. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
Has a good chapter on long-distance caregiving.
AARP’s webpage on long-distance caregiving—it lists lots of internet and print resources.
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