“Dad lives in a nursing home 50 miles away. How can I be there for him?”
“Mom’s assisted living community is in another state and we can’t visit often. How can the family make sure she’s doing well there?”
As someone who works with seniors and family caregivers, I hear questions and concerns like these all the time. If your parent resides in a senior community that is far from where you live, it’s likely that you experience guilt and frustration over trying to manage their care and quality of life from a distance. This is very common for long-distance caregivers. The key is to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation, do your best and avoid blaming yourself for not being there.
Make the Most of Parent Visits
Whether it’s once a month or once a year, visit your parent whenever you can. If you can’t make the trek very often, find other family members or close friends who might be willing to visit and supplement your efforts. Regular in-person visits are the best way to gauge a loved one’s physical and mental health and the quality of care they are receiving in a senior living facility. While you may be responsible for managing their care and advocating for your parent, all visits shouldn’t fall solely on you.
When guilt creeps in that you haven’t visited lately, remember this: What your parent needs most from these visits is quality, not quantity. If you can only drive there once a month, for example, then plan to make your time together enriching. Bring old photo albums to talk about and help you both reminisce. Even if your parent has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, distant memories are often much easier to recall than recent events.
Incorporate your parents’ hobbies and interests into the visit as well. For example, if Dad loved to play sports, bring a soft football for him to hold, watch part of a game together, or bring photos of your kids in their uniforms and tell him about recent wins. If Mom enjoyed gardening, bring some garden magazines, cut flowers or a potted plant that she can care for. (Realistic faux flowers are a nice, no-maintenance option as well.)
Just because you come to visit doesn’t mean your parent has to deviate from their regular schedule either. Sharing a meal in the dining room or bringing some of their favorite foods to eat in their room can be a meaningful way of spending time together. If your parent enjoys certain activities and events at the senior living community, see if you can accompany them. Most long-term care facilities offer craft areas, exercise and dance classes, movie nights and entertainment like live music performances. Field trips are an excellent idea as well because you and your loved one can take advantage of the facility’s transportation services and any additional assistance they may provide residents on outings.
During visits, you may feel that there is just too much to do in the limited time you have there. You can get more done and feel less stressed by talking to your parent ahead of time and finding out what he or she would like to do. A visit does not need to be long and filled with nonstop conversation. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to cram a month’s worth of interaction into a few hours. Instead, focus on enjoying each other’s company and making your parent feel loved.
Schedule a Care Plan Meeting
Don’t forget to set aside some time during your visit to talk with the staff at your loved one’s facility. They should be communicating with you even when you aren’t in town, but take advantage of the face time to get a progress report on your parent’s health, eating habits, social life, changes in personality, etc.
Residents’ needs and preferences are typically assessed upon admission to create a personalized plan of care for the facility and staff to follow. Subsequent assessments typically happen on an annual basis and after any changes occur in a resident’s condition. However, the facility should hold a care conference every couple of months to review your loved one’s care plan (and update it if necessary) to ensure their needs are being met.
Attending these care conferences is vital to understanding how your parent’s senior living facility operates and manages their care. These meetings give you a designated time to interact with staff members, receive updates on your mom or dad’s care, address problems, and work together to find viable solutions. Even if they are infrequent, try to coordinate your visits with your loved one’s care plan meetings. Residents tend to receive more attentive care when family members visit regularly and are actively involved in managing and advocating for their wellbeing. Whether you live around the corner or across the country from your parent’s community, it’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open with the staff there.
Use Technology to Keep in Touch
There are many ways to stay connected with your parent (and the staff) between visits. Phone calls and letters are an option, but advances in technology have yielded many other ways to keep in touch from afar, including email. If your parent doesn’t have a computer, tablet or smart phone, some senior living communities have purchased communal devices for residents to use. Skype and other video conferencing applications and programs can help you get as close to visiting as possible without actually being there. Expecting a call or knowing there will be an email waiting in their inbox is often enough to lift a senior’s spirits. These modes of communication can also provide caregivers some valuable insights into their elders’ well-being.
Lose the Caregiver Guilt
Keep in mind that your best effort is enough. You may not be able to attend every care conference in person or visit for each holiday, but you’re doing the best you can to help coordinate your parent’s care and ensure their quality of life. In caregiving, guilt does not serve a useful purpose. This emotion should be reserved for when we have consciously done something wrong. All too often family caregivers experience guilt because they strive to do more than realistically possible and perceive that they have let themselves or someone else down. Your personal best may not amount to everything you wish you could do for your loved one, but you are only human.
Some aging parents can be unbelievably demanding and insensitive to other family and career obligations that their adult children have. When caregiver guilt stems from failing to meet a loved one’s unrealistic expectations, then it is time to set personal boundaries or discuss other options for “enhancing” their care. If you are doing everything in your power to monitor their health and nurture your relationship, then the only option is to emphasize the efforts you are making to ensure their health and happiness and limit your exposure to their criticism.
If something is truly lacking at their senior living facility, then it is crucial to reevaluate your options. Hiring a professional caregiver through a home care company can provide elders in long-term care settings with supplemental one-on-one services and companionship. A geriatric care manager (also known as an Aging Life Care Professional) can make in-person visits, attend care conferences on your behalf and recommend strategies for ensuring a senior’s physical and mental wellbeing. Perhaps a move to a different senior living community would result in higher quality care and better opportunities for socializing with other residents. Transferring to a facility closer to you (or another family member) would allow for more involvement in their life while minimizing the time and money required to make visits.
The bottom line is that there are ways to enhance your loved one’s senior living experience and minimize your caregiver burden. You just have to be accepting of the situation your family is in, open to supportive resources, and realistic about your limits as well as your parent’s wants and needs.