Maybe you live in a major city where you’ve found excellent career opportunities and built a life for yourself and family, half a continent away from your mom, who still lives in the home where you grew up. Or maybe you’ve stayed close to your childhood home and your dad has retired to Florida.
Your parent is aging and becoming more frail. You’re worried. Moving is not an option. How do you manage your loved one’s care from afar?
Staying on top of an aging parent’s failing health and well-being when you live far apart brings many challenges and, often, much stress. But there are important ways that you can be involved when you are not able to be present—and ways to plan ahead that can ease the process of dealing with crises.
1) Identify a trusted contact
When you can’t be there yourself, you need to enlist the help of a trusted relative, friend or neighbor to be your eyes and ears, someone who can assist when your parent has an emergency and who can report any significant changes in his or her health or mental state that foreshadow more serious, emerging problems.
A Geriatric Care Manager can be a great help, as well—providing professional assessment, coordination of home care aides, support and reporting for medical check-ups, trouble-shooting and more. The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers has some excellent tips for how to select a GCM, as well as a search index to find a GCM near your parent or loved one’s home.
2) Collect and organize important information before a crisis occurs
When you’re far away and your parent has a medical emergency, you don’t want to scramble to find important medical, legal or financial documents. Be sure that you and your local contact can find lists of medication, doctors’ phone numbers, insurance cards, and other healthcare details for an emergency room visit.
You should also have copies or know where to find documents such as a health care proxy and HIPPA release. For a more detailed discussion, see Planning Ahead for a Medical Crisis: Must-Have Directives, Consents and Contact Information.
3) Meet with your parent’s physicians when you visit.
You may not be present when an emergency occurs, but you’ll have a better understanding of his or her situation and needs if you hear, first hand, about medical concerns from your parent’s physician. Talk to you parent and explain that you would like to accompany him or her to an appointment, to learn more and build a relationship with the doctor, just in case you’ll need to be involved with medical decisions at some point in the future.
While you’re visiting, it’s also a good idea to research community services that could be of help to your parent. Know the resources, and keep a list of contact information for yourself and your local, trusted help.
4) Delegate responsibilities to other trusted family members.
Much as you may want to do it all yourself, caring for an aging parent long distance can be highly stressful. If you have siblings or other relatives whom you trust and are willing to help out, even if they also live far away, delegate tasks that can be handled by others. For example, with your parent’s consent, one of you might keep track of utility bill payments; there are services that enable a third party to be notified if a payment is missed.
Family dynamics are always complicated, especially when it comes to who will be the most responsible for managing a parent’s care. You’ll find some helpful suggestions for working through the rough spots here: “Mom Always Liked You Best!”—How to Get Past Sibling Rivalry and Work Together to Care for Your Aging Parent.
5) Respect your parent’s right to make his or her own decisions.
This is probably the hardest piece. You see things that aren’t quite right. You suspect your parent can’t handle everything on his or her own anymore. But your parent is still competent. Share your concerns, with love and respect, but be prepared to step back. Your parent is an adult, and he or she may make decisions that are not wise and may precipitate a crisis. Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis for a parent to realize and accept that he or she really does need your help. A good GCM can provide needed support and mediation to assist you and your loved one to find the best long-term solutions.
More helpful tips about caring for your parent long distance can be found in “So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long Distance Caregiving,” a free pamphlet from the National Institute on Aging. Order online or call 1-800-222-2225 (toll free) or 1-800-222-4225 for TTY (toll free).
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.