If you are a long-distance caregiver, you probably feel as though you’re trying to care for your aging loved one with your hands tied behind your back.

When you call and get no answer, worry sets in and you panic that something bad may have happened. Has Dad gone to the grocery store or to visit with a friend? Or has he fallen and injured himself? You’re responsible for this person’s well-being and you don’t want an emergency to happen on your watch. It may seem like overkill if everything turns out fine, but countless long-distance caregivers have phoned neighbors or even the police to check on their loved ones.

You try to manage their medical care, check that they’re taking their medications as directed and ensure they’re eating well, but these tasks aren’t easily handled from afar. Keeping tabs on an aging parent who lives even thirty minutes away can be a harrowing experience, and the challenges only grow with added distance.

I’ve learned through my work with hundreds of long-distance caregivers that there are some common lessons that crop up soon after accepting this role. In an effort to help shorten the learning curve for those who are new to caregiving from afar, below is a list of the top six things you should know.

  1. Silence isn’t always golden, but it isn’t always a sign of a crisis, either. 
    Just because your loved one goes AWOL for a few hours doesn’t necessarily mean that the worst has befallen them. The reality is that there are a multitude of reasons why someone might not answer the phone. Your loved one could be out of the house, they could be napping, or they may have forgotten to charge or turn on their cell phone. Before you allow a missed call to let your imagination run wild, put a solid communication plan in place.
    For example, have your care recipient agree to call you every day at the same time, no matter where he or she might be. That way, if you don’t get the call, you have a logical reason to worry. If memory issues make that approach too much of a challenge for your loved one, consider enlisting a neighbor, friend, volunteer or paid companion to stop by and send you a quick text or email that all is well. Be sure to gather contact information for a few of your loved one’s neighbors in case of an emergency.
    Consider purchasing a wearable emergency medical alert system for added peace of mind. You probably don’t want to call your loved one multiple times a day to check up on them, and it’s likely they aren’t keen on you phoning nonstop to make sure they’re okay either. Wearing a medical alert device means that they have the ability to call for help at the push of a button no matter where they are.
  2. Rely on your eyes, not your ears. 
    Long-distance caregivers are familiar with hearing that everything is fine (or conversely, that it’s all awful!). But, you can’t always take what a senior tells you at face value. There is no substitute for in-person visits while caregiving. This holds true whether your loved ones live across town or across the country. You must make a point of regularly checking things out for yourself. Countless adult children have relied on their parents’ reports that all is well until they come home for a visit and are confronted by countless red flags.
    On visits, be sure to keep an eye out for common warning signs that a senior needs help at home. Open the refrigerator and pantry to check for wholesome, unexpired food. Check for piles of unopened mail that may indicate bills are going unpaid. See if the home or yard needs any repairs, maintenance or modifications to increase safety. Strike up a conversation with the neighbors to get their take on how your loved one is faring. If you can’t make this visit yourself, enlist another trustworthy person to check in and report back to you. Another family member or friend might be able to step up, or you may want to hire a geriatric care manager or an in-home caregiver to make regular assessments and fill you in on any changes or concerns.
  3. Beware of “showtiming.” 
    Just because a senior’s home is clean and the fridge is stocked with healthy food doesn’t mean it always looks like this! Very often, older family members don’t want to worry their caregivers or be a burden. So, they ensure they are on their best behavior before and during visits. They work hard to make everything appear fine, at least on the surface. (Be aware that seniors tend to put on this act during doctor’s appointments, too!) If you suspect this might be the case, consider making an unannounced visit.
    In any event, it’s wise to open drawers and cupboards, check inside the medicine cabinet, and at least take a peek at the basement, attic or garage. Snooping is never a good habit, but in this case, it’s done with the best of intentions: keeping your loved one safe. You might find that they have quite literally swept the true state of affairs under the rug!
  4. Create a go-to “owner’s manual.” 
    We have owner’s manuals for our cars and major household appliances, so why not create one for ourselves? If you are a caregiver, especially a long-distance one, the single most important resource you can have is a reference guide to your loved one’s life.
    You may want to create two copies. Keep one at your home and leave one at your loved one’s home in case someone else must reference it in the event of an emergency. Yours should be the master copy and include your loved one’s complete health history, legal documents and financial information. The guide you leave with your loved one can be a “light” version that contains emergency contacts, general medical information, and a do-not-resuscitate order if applicable. However, do not include sensitive financial or identifying information, such as account numbers or their social security number.
    This strategy compiles all vital information in one place so you don’t have to search high and low when you need something. Leaving an emergency file with your loved one also makes it easy for a neighbor or first responder to access important details and act quickly in difficult situations. Equally as important, the process of creating these files forces you and your care recipient (and any other caregivers) to form a partnership and really talk through healthcare decisions, legal preparations and financial matters before they become crises.
  5. Make requests for help very specific. 
    Whether you and your loved one are living under the same roof or you’re caregiving from afar, it’s natural to become overwhelmed and need help at some point. While a hands-on caregiver can be directly involved in finding reinforcements and “showing” exactly how things should be done, a long-distance caregiver usually has to rely solely on “telling” what’s needed. Because of this, clarity and directness are paramount.
    Many long-distance caregivers make the mistake of simply requesting that someone “look in on Mom,” but then become frustrated when this person cannot answer questions about the state of the refrigerator or whether Mom’s pillbox was properly organized. Vague requests for help often go ignored or don’t wind up being beneficial. Instead, make a list of possible issues or problem areas that your loved one has, then request help with monitoring those specific things. For instance, rather than asking someone to pop in and say “hi” to Mom, specify that you need them to check that the kitchen is stocked, dispose of any expired food and look at Mom’s medication organizer during each visit. This leaves little room for interpretation and ensures that their efforts are actually benefitting Mom and giving you peace of mind. Just be sure to give your loved one ample notice so that they aren’t unnerved or insulted by what they may assume to be an unusually nosy neighbor or friend.
  6. Planning and communication are key.
    The most important lesson long-distance caregivers share with me is that healthy communication solves many issues. Caregivers must keep channels of communication open with their loved ones at all times so that no one makes assumptions. All members of a senior’s care team must communicate with one another to avoid duplication of effort and oversights. Caregivers must let their family and friends know what’s going on with them. When a caregiver encounters a particularly difficult challenge, it’s helpful to be able to share it and receive constructive advice. When putting together a comprehensive care plan, or even preparing to take your loved one to a doctor’s appointment, always have a Plan B ready. Caring for a senior will keep you on the tips of your toes. The best way roll with the punches is to plan for the unexpected, try to remain calm and put forth your best effort.

While the above points are intended for long-distance caregivers, they make sense for anyone who is looking after an elderly loved one. The goals are still the same, regardless of distance: keep your loved one safe and as independent as possible, while also managing to balance your own life and self-care.

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