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How Can I Help My Elderly Parents From Afar?

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Caring for your elderly parents can be an emotional and sometimes frustrating experience, but it can be made even more difficult if you are doing it from far away. As a long-distance caretaker, you may often feel helpless and constrained by the geographical distance.

This bring up the question, “How can I help my elderly parents from afar”?

  • Get written permission to obtain and act on their medical information
  • Compile their financial and insurance information
  • Have them put you on at least one financial account
  • Ensure their safe environment
  • Plan for emergencies by gathering legal documents
  • Set travel funds aside
  • Get info on local support
  • Consider taking caregiving classes
  • Pre-plan your trips

If you are living apart from your parents and they are in decline, learn how you can support them with the tips, ideas and information below. There are many more resources available to guide you as well, but let this help you understand some of the complexities behind long-distance caretaking and will ease some of your concerns.

Long Distance Caregiving Statistics

The National Institute on Aging states that if you live an hour or more away from your elderly parents who need your help, then you are considered a long-distance caretaker.

A MetLife study on long-distance caregiving revealed some interesting statistics:

Time Spent with Parent(s)

With an average distance of 450 miles, 51% of long-distance caregivers reported that they still visited their aging parents at least a few times each month.

Type of Care Giving Offered

Close to 25% of long-distance caregivers stated that they were the only or primary care provider. Three-fourths were helping with transportation, shopping and managing finances. About half were spending one day a week managing needed services.

Effect on Work

Almost 80% of caregivers worked either full or part-time. Almost half had to rearrange their work schedules in order to handle a caregiving issue. Thirty-six percent reported missing days of work, and 12% took a leave of absence.

Effect on Finances

Long-distance caregivers spent an average of $392 a month supporting their elderly parents, mostly on travel. Those who live between one and three hours away spent an average of $386 per month, and those who lived more than three hours spent an average of $674.

Long Distance Caregiving Tips

There are more than 34 million people caring for an elderly relative, with almost 7 million serving as long-distance caregivers in the United States.

Obviously, all caregivers will have concerns and issues that can affect their personal life, career and finances, however, being a long-distance caregiver takes courage. It brings a different set of challenges into play over care taking when you live closer to your parents. As a caretaker from afar, you will need as much help as you can get in order to be successful.

Here are some tips to help you:

1) Gather Their Medical Information And Get Written Permission

As a caregiver for your elderly parents, whether near or far, we strongly recommend that you learn everything about their medical history.

Get this information together TODAY – don’t wait until there is a medical crisis that may keep them from guiding you. Trust me – I went through this firsthand when I visited my parents for lunch one afternoon and found Mom in the middle of what I thought was a stroke (it turned out to be a brain tumor, but that is another story). I was there in the emergency room with both parents, and they were so upset that they couldn’t remember a lot of their information. Fortunately, I had it all written down in an app on my phone, so I could pass everything on to the doctors without any trouble.

When you gather their information, keep in mind that you will need to know their past medical history. This included all their illnesses, plus the medicines they take daily (record both the dosage and the number of times they take the medication every day). You’ll also need to compile their primary care doctor’s contact information, and your parents end-of-life wishes, should there be a medical emergency. This information can help you assist in their healthcare management.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), you need to get their written permission to receive medical information about them going forward. This way, you can help explain things to them, guide them with any decision-making, and can act as your parents’ advocate. In my mom’s case, because she was terminal, family decisions were made about hospice and other medical care. If I hadn’t had her sign a form that gave the physicians, hospitals, and hospice permission to talk to me about her illness, I wouldn’t have been able to advocate for many things involving her care.

2) Compile Their Financial and Insurance Information

Gather their insurance information. I mean not only their medical insurance info, but also get contact information and other pertinent things, such as policy numbers, for their auto, home, and life insurance. You need to be able to help them if they suddenly can’t speak for themselves.

Additionally, you will need to know about and have access to your parent’s financial records. This can help you (and your siblings) aid your parent with so many decisions (for example: if needed, can they afford to move into an assisted living facility? Do they have the ability to hire a home health aide?).

Compile all of your parent’s important information and store it in one place, either in a binder or in a shared, secure online document. Certain things should be easily accessible (i.e., their medical information) in the event of an emergency.

3) Have Them Put You On At Least One Financial Account

It’s a good idea to have your parents add you to at least one of their accounts. This way, you can pay their bills for them if they can’t, plus should disaster strike and they pass away suddenly, you will be able to cover funeral expenses or pay remaining bills with their money, not your own. (For example, I hate to be “direct” about a sensitive subject, but funeral homes are a business – they will not carry out someone’s funeral without getting paid first).

After my mom passed away, Dad took care of paying the bills in her place. I checked up on him by balancing his checkbook online each month. And, because my parents had added me to their bank accounts a few years before my mom got sick, I was able to access the account and catch the fact that he had mistakenly written a $2,820.00 check for a $282.00 bill. After that, I took care of paying his bills online – which he readily agreed to when he realized how much that mistake could have cost him (thankfully, we got it straightened out).

4) Ensure Their Safe Environment

One of the main concerns of caregivers, especially those who are caregiving from far away, is their elderly parents’ safety. Obviously, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that their environment is as safe as possible for them to live in – especially if they are aging in place.

There are many things to consider, such as where to put grab bars in a bathroom, kitchen safety, fall monitoring devices (think Life Alert), anti slip floor products, and even your parent’s driving ability or their capacity to care for their pets.

With your parents’ permission (sometimes you’ll have to twist their arm!) you can hire a professional organizer to come in and help to organize the home which should help to make it easier and more importantly safer for your parents to live in.

You can find licensed, professional organizers in your area at the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO).

Another recommendation is to hire a certified home safety specialist who is specifically trained to assess and make the proper recommendations for modifications in the home for elderly individuals.  You can check out the registry at Age Safe America to find a specialist near you.

For a comprehensive guide to help you modify and adapt any and all of their spaces, start here.

5) Plan For Emergencies By Gathering Legal Documents

Unexpected things can happen at any time when you are a long-distance caretaker. In the event of an emergency, you should be prepared to deal with the situation at a moment’s notice. Having the following items on hand will help prevent stress and confusion:

  • Copies of all medical records and names of primary care physicians, as well as any specialized doctors they see (example: an oncologist or an endocrinologist)
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care and Durable Power of Attorney for Asset Management
  • Living Will
  • Advance Medical Directives
  • Bank account information
  • Insurance information (particularly your parent’s medical insurance policy numbers and the insurance company’s contact information)

*NOTE: we are not attorneys and this information should not be taken as direct legal advice. For more personalized legal help regarding the documents you should have in place when caring for your elderly parents, please consult an attorney who is experienced in Elder Law and/or estate planning.

READ MORE: Benefits Of Aging In Place

6) Set Travel Funds Aside

If at all possible, have funds set aside in a separate bank account that you don’t touch, but can quickly access for emergency plane fare or any travel expenses you might encounter if you suddenly had to rush to your parent’s aid. (Yes, you can always put the expenses on your credit card, but it should be less stressful if you know you have the money tucked away in an emergency and you won’t have the added cost of credit card fees and interest.)

Obviously, you can’t plan for everything, but you should still try to think of what you might need for a worst-case scenario:

If something happened, would you be able to stay with your parent or with a nearby relative or a friend for several weeks? If you need to stay at a hotel, how much would that cost? You can check by going to a website like Hotels.com or Expedia.com and searching for hotels close to your parent’s home. Then, set aside at least a couple of weeks’ worth of hotel costs.

Also, look up the price of a last-minute plane ticket to their city (or country) and add that amount to your lodging amount.

What about transportation when you get there? Can you use public transportation or will you need to borrow a car or rent one? How much would that cost?

Next up is food. Will a relative provide it or will you have to come up with all of it yourself? Eating at a hospital is often cheaper than eating at a regular restaurant, but if you needed to do so for several weeks, try to get a ballpark idea of how much the cost could be and set that aside with the travel and lodging amount.

7) Gather Local Support Information and Find Care Giving Resources

Another one of the “first” things you should do as a long-distance caretaker is to establish a network of local support for your parents. If they have close friends or other relatives who live near them, enlist their help in keeping an eye on your parents.

Also, if one, or both, of your parents has ongoing medical issues that need to be monitored, you could hire a home health aide to visit on a regular basis and ensure their medical needs are being met.

Today, there are an amazing amount of resources available to older adults. From meal and grocery delivery to adult daycare, there is a wide variety of services that can be used to help them age in place safely.

When you are faced with finding care for your parents from a distance, the internet is an invaluable resource. Here are some great places to look for information:

8) Consider Taking Caregiving Classes

You don’t know what you don’t know and this is never more apparent than when you are trying to take care of a loved one and you are suddenly in over your head. Let me give you an example: when my mom was ill, she was in a wheelchair, with limited strength in her legs. Dad was determined to help her, but he had no training in assisting a wheelchair-bound person transfer from the wheelchair to the toilet and back (or into bed, etc).

The result was that he and Mom fell down more than once, with him getting hurt by trying to cushion her and take the brunt of the fall. He had no idea of how to leverage his weight to get her to a standing position, nor how to get her up once she was on the floor. He had to call the paramedics a few times before Mom refused to allow him to help her any longer and they got a home health aide.

Do an internet search to find in-person classes near you or watch informative videos online. Here are some to get you started:

AARP offers some family caregiving video lessons on things like, getting a person from a car to a wheelchair and what to do when someone falls.

Morningside Ministries offers more than 300 online caregiver videos, which you can watch free of charge.

The Family Caregiver Alliance offers a handbook for long distance caregivers, as well as webinars and information on caregiver issues and strategies. They also have a YouTube channel with videos on many topics and in several languages.

9) Pre-plan Your Visits

When visiting your parents, depending on the situation, there may be a lot that you need to accomplish in the short time you have. Planning ahead and making a checklist will help alleviate stress while you are with them.

Before your visit, check in with their primary caregiver to learn about any new medical issues or concerns. If needed, schedule a family meeting to discuss any decisions that might have to be made.

When you are able to anticipate things and plan ahead, you can focus more on spending quality time with your parents.

Caring for Elderly Parents Out of State

We live in a much more mobile society today. Adult children may move away for job opportunities, and elderly parents choose to retire in warmer climates. But when aging parents begin to show signs that they are no longer able to care for themselves or adequately handle their day-to-day responsibilities, ensuring their continued well-being can pose significant challenges.

It’s bad enough if you live a few hours away, but what if you live out of state? If you live far enough away that you can’t easily get to your parents on a weekly or semi-weekly basis, then it becomes even more stressful to be their caretaker.

Important things to note when caring for your elderly parents out of state are:

  • Will they need daily or weekly in-home personal/health care?
  • Will they need transportation to medical appointments?
  • Will they need home modifications or equipment to help them get around?
  • Will they need help with cleaning, cooking or shopping?

Our caregiving tips above can give you the resources you need to help alleviate the stress of caretaking from out of state.

Should I Move Closer to My Parents?

As a long-distance caregiver, you may be so concerned about your elderly parents well being that you are considering moving closer to them. If you are retired or have job flexibility, it may be an easier choice. Moving near your parents might give you more peace of mind, but know that it will also be a big adjustment.

Before you decide to move closer, here are some things to consider:

  • How complicated are your family dynamics?
  • Will you be able to balance your own family time with “too much togetherness” with your parents?
  • What challenges will you face when trying to maintain your own personal life?
  • Why are you moving – out of guilt or or out of necessity and how will that influence your relationship with your elderly parents?
  • Can you take the emotion out of your decision and know when it is better not to move?

It may be better to stay where you are and organize your parents’ care from there. This is especially true if you are working or can’t afford to move, or when you have children who are still in school. You also may be better staying where you are if it would put stress on a relationship.

How Do I Take Care of My Parents Abroad?

Living overseas, because of work or other reasons, is even tougher when you are dealing with long-distance care taking of elderly parents. You have the guilt of being far away, as well as the stress of dealing with their healthcare or other challenges from overseas. You may even have to worry about family tension from siblings or other relatives who live closer to your parents and try to shame you into moving back home.

If this is your situation,there are several things you can do to help you keep your sanity:

  • Have a frank conversation with your parents about their needs and wishes. How do they feel about downsizing or moving into a retirement community or assisted living? Should the unthinkable happen, what are their end-of-life wishes?
  • Consult an attorney to get all needed legal documents in place before you go overseas. This might include documents such as a Living Will, a Medical Power of Attorney, a Durable power of Attorney, a current will, signing medical authorizations that allow you to be informed of their medical conditions, etc.
  • Ensure your parent’s medical professionals have your contact information and know the time difference between where you are and where they are. It won’t do much good if they try to call you at the beginning of their work day and you are six hours behind them.
  • Make sure you have a trusted local support system in place. This should include talking to trusted neighbors or friends who will agree to check on your parents, as well as interviewing home health care companies so you have one lined up in case they suddenly have to step in until you can get home.
  • Along those lines, also have contact information for meal services, transportation services, and lawn or house cleaning services.
  • Be prepared for an emergency by having the funds set aside to fly home from abroad.
  • As mentioned in an earlier section, assemble and record the contact information for their physicians, pharmacies, hospitals, and any other medical services, as well as their personal medical information (illnesses, conditions, medications they are taking, etc.)
  • Ensure their home is as safe as possible before you leave. This might include such things as installing grab bars in the showers, lighting on stairs, getting mobility aids together, clearing clutter and removing throw rugs that they could trip over, and providing fire extinguishers and automatic shut off devices or checking that smoke detectors are functional.
  • Most importantly, since you won’t be readily available to visit your parents as often, set up a video calling system such as Skype or Amazon’s Portal. This way you can get a sense of their physical well being and they can have a more personal visit compared to just hearing your voice on the phone. Video calling lets you check for clues that something isn’t right or that they are having trouble coping with something. It can also help them feel less isolated from you while you are abroad. TIP: you should train your elderly parents on how to use the video calling system before you go abroad. For seniors who may not be comfortable with today’s technology, video calling might be confusing and intimidating. Be sure to write down each step of the process for your parents. This allows them to follow a step by step list, so they won’t have to remember it. My 98-year old dad used an iPad, but in many cases, I had to list “how to’s” in great detail so that he could get to the places (or use the apps) he wanted to use.

Long Distance Caregiver Support Groups

The worry that comes from long-distance care taking can be overwhelming at times. Not having immediate access to an aging parent can be stressful, especially if they are having medical problems.

Taking care of yourself may be one of the last things you think about when you are dealing with your aging parent from far away. However, making sure you are healthy, both physically and mentally, is important. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a long-distance caretaker is to join a support group. Whether it is in your local community or online, a support group can help you blow off steam, discover that you are not alone, relieve your sense of isolation, and allow you to exchange stories. Support groups can also be a great resource for advice and care giving tips.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers an online community for long-distance caregivers and the National Caregiver’s Library is also a great resource for support.

The Veteran’s Administration has many resources to help caregivers of military veterans. They offer a mentoring program for families of veterans and also offers a Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274. Additionally, if you are a caretaker for a veteran, the V. A. will match you with a local Caregiver Support Coordinator who can help you find resources and services that may be available to the veteran.

The Caregiver Action Network has some great resources for long distance caregivers, including information of finding the right support group. Among other things, they recommend checking with places like the social work department of your area hospital or the Area Agency on Aging in your parent’s locale.

You may also find it helpful to read more tips for caregivers of elderly parents here.

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