We’re Three Time Zones Apart. How Can I Take Care of Mom and Dad?

Worried man pulling out of driveway, waving at elderly father

You're heading home after the holidays … and you're worried.

As you and your siblings grew up and moved to the far corners of the country, the family has always come together at the old homestead for the holidays. Spouses and grandkids joined the clan, welcomed by Mom's delicious holiday meals and the decorations Dad has decked the halls with since you were all kids. Admit it — even though you have your own life in the place you chose, it probably feels awfully good to come home and feel a little bit pampered by the folks.

Yet as the years go by, these visits often are the time when the family realizes that things have changed. Mom's meticulous housekeeping has slipped. Dad hasn't shaved in a few days, and he seems to have lost weight. He seems unsafe behind the wheel of the old car, which is in poor repair. Mail is piled up on the hall table, and some of those unopened envelopes appear to be bills. The medicine chest is a disorganized jumble, and both parents have trouble remembering which pill to take when.

It may be time for the family to craft a plan for helping the folks stay safe and healthy at home. Where do you start? Sometimes, a family member who lives nearby steps up to serve as the primary caregiver, and if that's the case, others who live out of the area should support them and pitch in to the fullest of their abilities.

But if no family members live nearby — which is more common with today's smaller families and greater mobility — you might find yourself suddenly or gradually supporting the well-being of senior loved ones from afar. You're not alone: According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, there will be up to 14 million long-distance caregivers by the end of the decade.

It's not an easy job. Experts say long-distance caregivers spend more of their own money and experience more emotional distress than caregivers who live near their loved one. The situation can be heart-wrenching. Long-distance caregivers report that their sleep is disturbed as they worry whether their loved ones are OK. They wistfully think of all they could do if they were closer — drive Mom to her bridge club meetings, help Dad with home repair projects, or come over to cook nutritious meals. A poll in the November 2016 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter revealed that most readers have experienced caregiver guilt — the fear that they aren't doing enough for their loved one. This emotional distress can be especially powerful when you're far away.

If this is your situation, it's time to put a plan in place. Begin by talking with other family members. Do your homework. Make a list of tasks to be done and divide it up. If at all possible, plan to visit more often. Call more often. If you're worried about your loved one's health conditions, ask to come along to a doctor's visit.

Statistics show that some caregivers relocate to be closer to their loved one who needs care. In other cases, senior parents move to their children's community, living with family or in a nearby assisted living community or other supportive setting.

But if your loved one wants to stay in their long-time home, you can create a strategy to help.

Ask your loved one's permission to assist with their financial and health records, and to receive financial and medical information. Reassure them that you're not trying to invade their privacy or control their lives. An elder law attorney and your loved one's healthcare provider may be able to help.

Learn about senior resources and services in your loved one's area. Start with the website of the local senior services agency. You may be surprised at all the support programs offered.

Make repairs and modifications to your loved one's home so it will be safer and more convenient as their health condition and abilities change.

Find new ways to keep in touch. Get the folks a smartphone if they don't already have one. Set up videoconferencing and email. Today there are many new technologies to keep seniors safe and connected.

But technologies don’t provide the human touch. For much greater peace of mind, consider hiring professional in-home care.

Where to begin? Rather than taking a chance on a Craigslist ad or employment agency, hire in-home care through a reputable agency that screens and trains their caregivers and provides ongoing supervision. Hiring through an agency may cost a bit more, but the ongoing support is invaluable — and will most likely pay for itself as you avoid spending countless hours on the phone, away from your work tasks, to figure out why the caregiver didn't show up or why Mom missed her ophthalmologist appointment.

Professional caregivers support your loved one's well-being and your peace of mind in so many ways:

Senior woman with caregiver

Communicating with you. With your loved one's permission, the caregiver and agency can share information with you about how your loved one is doing, providing reassurance and letting you know if there's something that needs to be attended to.

Coordinating care. So many seniors see an array of healthcare providers, each of whom issues a separate set of instructions. On top of that, older adults take an average of 14 prescription drugs each year. The caregiver can help keep track of your loved one's appointments, provide transportation and keep your loved one company at doctor visits, take your loved one to the pharmacy, and provide medication reminders.

Helping your loved one at home. Professional caregivers can plan and prepare meals, do laundry and light housekeeping, and remove fall hazards. They also assist with personal care and grooming, such as bathing, dressing and incontinence care.

Providing transportation. It's easy for seniors with health challenges to become isolated and lonely, losing connection with the community in which they once thrived. The caregiver can take your loved one shopping, to visit friends, to their faith community, or to the senior center — all the activities that give them joy and keep them socially active.

Keeping a watchful eye. It's a sad fact: Scammers and con artists often target older adults, especially those they identify as having memory loss and thinking problems. The caregiver can help sort mail, always on the alert for sketchy solicitations and schemes that arrive in the mail, email or by phone.

Improving the quality of family visits. If you can only come to your parents’ home a few times each year, those visits can be much more pleasant and meaningful if you don't spend the whole time dealing with problems and challenges. Many long-distance caregivers report that while they look forward to visiting the folks, they also feel apprehension at what they might find. An in-home caregiver can eliminate those unpleasant surprises by letting you know how your loved one is doing, all year long, and taking care of problems that come up on an ongoing basis.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.