Millions of adults provide long distance caregiving
The National Institute on Aging estimates there are approximately seven million adults providing long distance caregiving for their aging parents who live an hour or more away. The Alzheimer’s Association LA and Riverside estimates that caregivers live an average of 480 miles from the people for which they care. These data likely under-estimates the actual scope of long distance caregiving by family and significant others.
In reality, if you live an hour or more away from a person who needs care, you are probably a long-distance caregiver.
Does that mean that long distance caregiving can’t work for more than 50 million people providing care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend? Based on my experience as a long distance caregiver, and having worked with many long distance caregiving families, distance does not have to diminish caregiving quality.
In an ideal world, family members can always be there as caregivers, but the truth is 73 percent of family caregivers who care for someone over the age of 18 either work or have worked while providing care. Admitting you cannot do it all and seeking the right assistance, are the benchmarks to caregiver balance. When the caregiver’s life is in balance, the quality of life for the senior is also improved.
Helpful tips for dealing with long distance caregiving:
• Isolation will diminish a loved one’s health, so family members should maintain a frequent line of communication by phone or email. Balance the frequency of contact so it is reasonable for all parties involved.
• Encourage friends and neighbors to visit or call, but do not rely on them to take the place of family caregivers. If they are elderly themselves, they may not be any more able to assist or assess. They may be in denial themselves and not recognize issues or problems.
• Since this is a new experience for you, talk to someone like an eldercare navigator who can provide a plan and offer suggestions and solutions for care. You may be overlooking important issues and resources that can assist you with your caregiving responsibility.
• Tap into local community senior resources and organizations that may offer free or reduced cost services.
• While visiting, have open and frank discussions with a loved one’s healthcare team to ensure that you are up to date on their medical condition and care regimen, including the medications they are taking. If the healthcare team is not open to communication, contact an eldercare navigator or geriatric care manager nurse to facilitate and translate the message.
• Meet with neighbors, friends and other relatives to thank them for their assistance and get some first-hand information about a loved one’s actual mental and physical condition. Ask if there have been any behavioral changes, health problems or safety issues.
• When you visit, do so with a critical eye. Is your loved one clean? Is there an odor? Are dishes piled in the sink? Are there obstructions (loose carpet, electrical cords, furniture, etc.) that could pose fall risks? Have they lost weight, with clothes hanging off them (a sign that they aren’t eating properly)?
• Plan ahead to have family leave or personal days available in case you need to make an unexpected visit to your relative. Put aside money in a special fund to pay for such trips.
• Make sure you have filed away company names and phone numbers for all utilities, including electric, phone, cable and Internet.
• Make appointments with your loved one’s lawyer and financial adviser to ensure that legal and financial matters are in order, including a list of insurance policies, the carriers and account numbers; information on bank accounts, other financial holdings and credit cards; and relevant legal documents (i.e. wills, advance directives, trusts, powers of attorney); and location of important documents (i.e. birth certificates, deed to home). Make sure that you have the authority to meet with these consultants. Even if you think that the senior is not taking care of business does not mean that you have the authority to act on their behalf.
• Before the senior is too mentally confused, meet with an attorney and the senior to complete Powers of Attorney for healthcare and property. Do not wait too long or the senior may not be able to select their Agent due to their mental confusion.
Dementia & Alzheimer’s pose special challenges
Seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s pose special safety concerns and may require in-home supervision. Work with senior care experts who can assess the situation to optimize safety for the senior. Non-medical or private duty agency staff are not nurses and cannot manage medications and healthcare problems. Only a licensed nurse can provide that service. Experts like eldercare navigators can interview, supervise and train non-medical staff to optimize their impact. The caregiver needs to be concerned about abuse and neglect if the senior has dementia. The navigator can monitor for this potential issue.
New technologies make it easier to monitor loved ones from long distance. Consider installing a webcam in your loved one’s home as a way to check up on them and see how they are doing. A webcam does not replace on site supervision, self or attendant abuse and neglect, medication compliance, and poor safety awareness due to dementia. The camera should not be relied on as a sole tool for senior safety. Also equip your loved one with an emergency necklace or bracelet that allows them to alert the police or paramedics with the push of a button should they need help. If the senior has dementia, they may not know how to use the alert so other options are needed for their safety.
Millions of seniors can live safely by themselves, but for those who may need some on- site caregiving, there are people who can help and resources to draw upon to relieve the anxiety and make long distance caregiving viable.
Mardy Chizek, RN, FNP, BSN, MBA, AAS
President, Charism Elder Care Services