If you are a long-distance caregiver, you probably feel as though you're often in the dark.
You call and call your loved one, but there's no answer. You go to that darkest place – something must have happened. Then, if you're like most of us, you go into full alert mode, calling every five minutes.
Perhaps you call your loved one's neighbors. Maybe you even call the police. After all, you're the caregiver and you don't want "anything bad" to happen on your watch.
How often do you learn a few hours later that Mom or Dad was out visiting a friend and "forgot" to mention it to you?
I've learned through my work with hundreds of long-distance caregivers that there are some lessons it seems every long-distance caregiver learns "on the job."
In an effort to help you climb that learning curve a bit faster, here's a list of the top six things long-distance caregivers need to know:
- Silence isn't always golden, but isn't always a crisis either: Just because your loved one goes "off the grid" for a few hours (or a day) doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is lying injured (or worse) on the bathroom floor. While the media gets hold of the rare horror story of the nice old lady who collapsed, the reality is that there are a multitude of reasons why someone might not answer the phone. Before this happens to you, put a plan in place. Try to 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 reasonable cause to worry. If memory issues make that approach too much of a challenge for your loved one, consider enlisting a "friendly visitor" to stop in and send you a quick text or email that all is well. This person might be a friend, neighbor, volunteer, or even a paid caregiver or companion. Get the phone numbers of a few of your loved one's neighbors and call them when you fear something is amiss. They can go knock on the door or check the driveway for the car. Consider also using an emergency response monitor, or a GPS device. Finally, make sure you call the local police department (non-emergency number) and find out how to request a well-being check for your loved one, in case you ever have to.
- It's not what you hear, it's what you see: Long-distance caregivers are familiar with hearing that everything is "fine" (or conversely, that it's awful!). But, just like silence, you can't always take what your care recipient tells you at face value. There is no substitute for making a visit and checking things out for yourself; there are definite indicators that act as signs your parent needs help. Open the refrigerator and pantry and check for no food (or old food). Look for mail that is piled up and unopened. Check for medication compliance. Look at whether repairs or maintenance are needed around the house. Talk to the neighbors. If you can't make this visit, perhaps you can enlist another family member or friend to do so. Geriatric care managers can help by performing this type of home assessment.
- What you see isn't always what you get: However, just because your loved one's home is neat and tidy and the fridge is full of good 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 are on "good behavior" in advance of, and during, a visit. They work hard to make everything appear fine, at least on the surface. 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. You might find that your loved one has literally swept the true state of affairs under the rug!
- A go-to "owner's manual" is the single most important resource: We have owner's manuals for our cars and dishwashers – why not for ourselves? If you are a long-distance caregiver, the single most important resource you can have is an owner's manual for your loved one's life. Your parents' complete health and financial information should readily be at hand. Not only does it gather all of the important information in one place so you don't have to search high and low when you need it, but it also forces you and your care recipient (and any other caregivers) to form a partnership and really talk about important issues before they become crises.
- Be specific in your requests for help: Whether you are caregiving from near or far, it's natural to become overwhelmed and frustrated. While a nearby caregiver can "show" someone else what they need done, a long-distance caregiver usually has to "tell". Many long-distance caregivers make the mistake of requesting that someone "look in on Mom," but then become frustrated when their surrogate eyes cannot answer their questions. Wouldn't it be better to ask a nice neighbor to stop by and say "Hi" to your Mom, check the refrigerator to see if there is fresh fruit and vegetables, and then call or email you with their findings? Or, how about asking your sister who is going to visit Dad to be sure to go through the mail with him and pull out any checks that need to be deposited? This will help you avoid the phone call where she tells you she had a great visit, but had no idea that you wanted her to go through the mail.
- Communication is key; plan your backups before a crisis hits: The most important lesson long-distance caregivers share with me is that striving for excellent communication solves many issues. Caregivers must create open channels of communication with their loved ones whenever possible so that no one makes assumptions. Sibling disputes about elderly parents care can occur and co-caregivers must communicate with one another to avoid duplication of effort, or things falling through the cracks. 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 get some input. Whatever methods you use for communication, it's a good idea to establish alternative channels in the event that the usual approach fails. You may want to make sure you have a non-electric phone that will work during a power outage and plugs directly into a wall jack. Or you might also consider setting up a phone tree to keep everyone in the loop when information needs to be transmitted quickly and no electronic medium is available.
While the above points apply nearly universally to long-distance caregivers, they really do make sense for anyone looking after an elderly loved one.
The best caregiving journey is one where you as the caregiver is able to keep your loved one safe and as independent as possible within the reality of the situation, while at the same time, staying whole and healthy yourself. All you can ever do as a caregiver is your best. This means remembering to make memories and helping your loved one to live a life with meaning and purpose.