When aging parents lives far away, caring for them is a challenge. These tips can make it easier.
Of the nearly 7 million Americans caring for aging relatives, an average of 3.3 million of are long-distance caregivers -- traveling more than one hour to care for a loved one. According to a recent report by the Alzheimer's Association LA & Riverside, Los Angeles, California, caregivers live an average of 480 miles from the person they care for.
"It's pretty rare these days for immediate family members to be living in one place," says Dr. Linda M. Rhodes, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging and author of Caregiving as Your Parents Age, also published as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents (Alpha, 2000). "If your parents live far away, making sure that they are being taken care of presents its own set of problems. But with thoughtful planning and smart advance work, you can be very effective."
Being miles away from your aging parent can be stressful. Making sure your parent is well cared for can be a daunting task when you are a distance from them. What do you do in an emergency? Who do you call on if your parent needs help? What resources are available where your parent lives?
"The most important thing to do is to find a geriatric care manager in the area where your loved one lives," says Jacqueline Marcell, author of Elder Rage, or Take My Father...Please! How to Survive Caring for Aging Parents (Impressive, 2000), and host of the radio program Coping with Caregiving. "She will have knowledge of all the services in the area and can be your eyes."
The cost of a geriatric care manager is currently not covered by insurance companies, but the money you save in having someone there to research quality care and services for your parents is a consideration if you are an out-of-town caregiver. A care manager can identify local services, oversee your parent's daily care, and assess ongoing needs. Most important, having a manager act as a liaison can relieve much of the stress and guilt that comes with long-distance caregiving.
"Develop a plan," says Marcell. "Be sure to have all the phone numbers for your parent's neighbors. If you can't get in touch with your parent, you will feel better having a neighbor check in on him. Develop a circle of 'helpers' in your parent's area."
Gather information on all the available services for seniors in your parent's area and keep the numbers near your phone. It may also be helpful to have a copy of your parent's local phone book on hand.
When you visit your parent, take time to get to know the people who are in contact with her on a regular basis -- banker, doctors, friends, and even the mail carrier.
"A mail carrier is in a position to notice if your parent has stopped picking up his mail," says Rhodes. "Many post offices and utility companies have elder-watch programs that will alert the area agency on aging to contact family members if they suspect a problem."
When you are caring for a parent who lives far from you, you may experience feelings of guilt and helplessness at times. Even if you're not physically caring for your elder parent, you are still coping with the personal issues associated with his or her care. Keeping in regular touch with your parent by phone, e-mail, or letters can help alleviate your feelings of guilt in not being present.
"Even if your loved one is long distance, you should be joining local support groups," says Marcell. "There are also great online groups where you can find solutions and support. Solutions present themselves when you start talking to people who are in your same position."
It's important to remember to take care of yourself. It isn't easy caring for a loved one long distance. Don't forget that you are not alone. Learn and use coping skills offered through support and counseling. And don't forget to give yourself a break.
To find a care manager in your loved one's area, contact the National Association of Geriatric Care Managers at
Originally published for BHG.com, June 2004.