Families deal with this challenge in different ways. Sometimes senior relatives relocate to be closer to younger family members. But many strongly prefer to stay in their own homes, where they have long-term ties to the community. Sometimes younger family members are the ones to relocate in order to care for older loved ones—but for most of us, that is not desirable or even possible, given our work and other family obligations.
This conundrum will become more and more common as the baby boomers grow older. Already, reports the Family Caregiver Alliance, there are 14 million long-distance caregivers in the U.S. If you are one of them, here is a strategy for providing care for your loved one, even from afar.
Assess your loved one’s situation. Learn all you can about your loved one’s health and living situation from your loved one, other family members, friends and neighbors, and (with your loved one’s permission) from their doctor and other professionals. Early in the process, assure your loved one that they are still in control—and indeed, they are, unless they are incapacitated.
Make a plan and create a team. This can include all the people mentioned above. Be sure your loved one is included in every step of the process. Exchange contact information with everyone. Ask your loved one’s permission to assist with their financial and health matters and to receive financial and medical information.
Bring in professionals. Elder law attorneys can help with legal and financial matters, such as powers of attorney and estate planning. An aging life care professional (geriatric care manager) can serve as a mediator when family members can’t agree, recommend and provide helpful support services, such as a senior living community or professional in-home care, and—especially valuable if you live at a distance—serve as a liaison and keep you in the loop.
Set up communication channels. Today there are more ways than ever to keep in touch with loved ones, no matter how far away they live. Video chatting can make it seem like you’re all in the same room. Set your loved one up with email and perhaps Facebook—if they’re not savvy, budget for some tech support time. With more and more families connecting on Facebook, older family members lose out if they can’t take advantage of this new way of communicating. But if your loved one can’t do that, write letters. Rather than emailing photos, print them out. And call more often! Don’t call only to discuss serious topics; you have a relaxed chat while you’re cooking or cleaning up, just like you might in person.
Visit as often as you can. Encourage your loved one to make a “to do” list of things you can help with when you arrive. Go along to doctor appointments if possible. Maybe there are household repairs and maintenance tasks that need doing, or maybe you need to put in a few hours organizing their paperwork. If your loved one has moved to a senior living community, you’ll want to see how things are going, talk to staff, and meet your loved one’s friends. And don’t forget to schedule some pleasant down time. If your job allows you only limited vacation time, consider taking a trip with your loved one, if they’re able.
Over time, as your loved one’s needs change, your caregiving role may grow. The earlier you have a plan in place, the easier it will be to adapt.