As a columnist for a newspaper on the High Plains, I often have readers write me that they are begging their parents to “come back home.” Upon retirement, many seniors like to leave the cold winters behind because warmer climates tend to be much easier on aging bodies. They either relocate permanently or summer up north and then head south for the snowy months.
But aging parents aren’t the only family members on the move. These days, adult children are less likely to stay put in their hometowns. Instead, they follow educational opportunities, jobs and significant others across the country and even around the world. With families so scattered, one important question remains: What happens when Mom and Dad need care?
The entire family finds itself in a quandary. Regardless of whether the parents have been living in the same town for 50 years or they relocated within the last decade, it’s safe to say that they have put down roots in this place. They have formed close relationships with their neighbors and doctors. Many seniors join local organizations and enjoy participating in community events. This is their home. They may travel to visit their kids and grandkids, but most older individuals are anxious to get back to the comfort of wherever they call home.
The Challenges of Long-Distance Caregiving
Distance becomes increasingly problematic as parents age and begin experiencing more difficulty with day-to-day tasks. Adult children try their best to keep tabs on things from afar, but they must travel to their parents to keep an eye out for signs they need help and to handle serious matters, such as hospitalizations and other emergencies. Even one last-minute trip can cause issues with work, childcare, pets and other responsibilities. When a parent begins needing regular assistance, there is only so much that can be done from across the state or across the country.
By definition, a long-distance caregiver is someone who lives an hour or more from their care recipient, but research shows that the average long-distance caregiver actually lives 450 miles and approximately 7 hours away. Nearly half (47 percent) of long-distance caregivers are likely to report high emotional stress compared to caregivers who live with their care recipient (43 percent) or nearby (28 percent). Caregivers who live more than an hour away also report higher levels of financial strain (21 percent), perhaps because 41 percent of long-distance caregivers must rely on paid help like in-home care services.
I frequently advise long-distance caregivers to help their loved ones find supportive services in their own area, but this can be difficult and offers the family little oversight of the situation. You can research care providers and check references, but it’s always best to have a certain degree of hands-on involvement when it comes to managing elder care and elder care providers. Let’s face it, long-distance caregiving is hard, especially when no family members live nearby to monitor the situation.
If moving closer to aging parents isn’t an option, the adult children tend to beg Mom and Dad to do the relocating. Parents usually balk, but can you blame them?
Even if we succeed in moving elderly parents nearer to us, depression can still take hold when loved ones are close by. As much as we’d like to think that family is everything, change is hard on older individuals, especially when they wind up starting from scratch in an unfamiliar place.
Starting Over in a New Place as a Senior
I witnessed this sad scenario happen to my friend Grace, who lived in the same apartment building as my parents. My father eventually moved to Rosewood on Broadway (a local nursing home) and Grace’s husband made the move as well when the effects of a stroke he’d had years earlier began to worsen. Grace didn’t drive and had been totally dependent on her husband, so I took her under my wing as much as I could.
When my mom was still living in the apartment building, I’d pick her and Grace up and take them to visit their husbands in the nursing home. This arrangement grew more complicated after Mom moved to Rosewood, too. How much could I help Grace when I had other aging family members and two children relying on me?
Fortunately, Grace continued to manage for a while with the help of many friends and a local senior transportation program. When her husband died, she was, of course, devastated. Her health deteriorated, and I found myself on call for her many emergencies. This was extremely difficult for me to handle with all my other obligations, but I couldn’t just ignore Grace either.
Her kids were concerned and did their best to help, but they each lived hundreds of miles away. When they visited, it slowly became evident to them that Grace couldn’t continue living independently. But Grace didn’t want to move from Fargo, N.D. She’d lived there for nearly 50 years. This was where her friends were. This was home. But her children couldn’t move back, either. They had jobs elsewhere and their own kids were settled in schools. Yet, they didn’t feel they could give Grace the care she needed from such a distance. So, unwillingly, Grace moved to be close to one of her sons.
The family did everything possible to make it a good experience. They found her a beautiful apartment close to their home. She spent plenty of time with them. They arranged get-togethers with female friends Grace had met while visiting over the years. They did all they could to help her establish a warm and rewarding life in this new city. Still, when Grace contacted me, she cried. She missed Fargo. She missed me. She missed her friends. She missed her church. She was depressed.
What was the right decision for Grace? I think her kids did the only thing they could do. But, obviously, it wasn’t a perfect scenario. While she had regular support from her family, I’m not sure Grace ever totally adjusted to starting over so late in life.
Is Relocating Elderly Parents the Right Move?
So, the question remains: Do we move our aging parents so we can keep a closer eye on them, or do we stumble along with visits and long-distance caregiving? I wish I could say which is best. I tell my readers that both options are imperfect and will present difficulties. Every situation is different, every family is different, and every senior is different. Some elderly parents refuse to move despite their obvious struggles and growing isolation. Others just need some convincing and plenty of time to adapt. You will probably face some degree of resistance and your elder will likely be unhappy, at least for a little while, no matter what you do.
If possible, plan early and talk with Mom and Dad about future desires and possibilities before significant health problems develop or a death occurs. Ask questions like, “What do you think you’d want to do if you couldn’t live alone safely anymore?” and “What would you want for your surviving spouse if you were to pass away?” These are difficult things to discuss, but it helps ensure everyone is thinking realistically about the future and gives your family a chance to get on the same page.
Depending on how far off a decision like this is, you may encourage your parent(s) to tour a few senior living facilities in their own area and in yours whenever they visit. It can’t hurt to educate yourselves about the options that are available.
As with all things involving aging loved ones, communicating about and preparing for the inevitable early on can make a big difference. Change is difficult for most people, and it seems to get harder as we get older. If you throw dementia into the mix, you’ll really have a challenge on your hands. The early stages of discussion and planning are usually easier because a permanent decision doesn’t have to be made yet. But when real life happens, be warned that Mom and Dad may totally change their minds or even deny that they ever agreed to relocate.
Elder Care Decisions Are Never Easy
Aging may not be for sissies, but neither is caregiving. You will face serious hurdles no matter what decision you and your aging parents make. If cognitive decline has rendered your parent(s) incompetent, it’s likely you will have to make the decision for them, and they won’t like that. You’ll second guess yourself all the way through. But, if you make choices with your loved ones’ best interests in mind, then that’s all you can do. Just be sure to make your own mental and physical health priorities as well. Everyone isn’t going to be pleased all the time. All you can do is your best.
Be kind. Be thoughtful. Realize that your loved ones have agency and choices as long as they are mentally competent. It’s likely that they’ll make decisions you don’t agree with along the way. Talk things over with a counselor, social worker, geriatric care manager or spiritual advisor if that helps you. Join a support group or online forum to talk with other family caregivers so you can share your situation and get advice from people who have walked this road before. Then do what you must do. Let your elders stay where they want and do your best to deliver long-distance care, or move them closer to you and help them adjust as much as possible. Whatever you decide, just remember that your best effort is good enough.