Long-Distance Caregiving: What You Need to Know

Elderly Woman Face-Timing with Long-Distance Caregiver

Caring for an aging parent is challenging enough when your parent is in your home or a few minutes' drive away. Unfortunately, the realities of modern life mean that many of us move away from our hometowns for work or education when our parents are still in good health, and find ourselves settled hundreds of miles away by the time they need our regular help.

The term "long-distance caregiving" may sound odd, but that's exactly what many Americans are doing. The so-called "sandwich generation" may not be able to race to a parent's side because of the needs of the family they themselves are raising. Even if there aren't kids to worry about, there are jobs and other obligations that make it difficult to be physically present for an aging parent. So adult children do the best they can from where they are. If this is your situation, here is some advice you may find helpful.

Organization Pays Off

Think about what it would take for someone to manage your affairs and make decisions, both financial and medical, for you if you couldn't do it yourself. Now ask yourself how prepared you feel to do so for your parent. Do you know all of their doctors, or have permission to talk to those doctors? Do you know what medications they're on? What about finances? Where do they bank? What assets do they have? Where do they keep important documents, such as the deed to the house?

It may be worth scheduling a visit, if you can, with the specific aim of organizing information in a way that enables you to access it as needed. Remember, if your parent should have a sudden emergency, such as a stroke, they may not be able to help you gather information, so get their help while they are able to give it.

You'll want a binder with dividers, and probably a telescoping file folder to put documents (or copies of documents) in. In your binder, you'll want to have sections for financial, medical, legal, and insurance information, as well as information relating to their home. This will include:

  • A list of assets and debts, including bank account, retirement account, and credit card numbers.
  • A list of sources of income and how it gets paid to your parent (e.g. check mailed to their home or direct deposit).
  • Documentation of regular monthly expenses, including utilities with account numbers and contact numbers.
  • Names of all physicians, dentists, and regular care providers with patient or medical record numbers and contact information.
  • A list of medications and dosages, along with the name and contact information for your parent's pharmacy.
  • A list of your parent's known medical conditions and a medical history detailing what they've been treated for, where, and when.
  • A deed to their house (or a copy of their lease). If someone else is responsible for managing the property, such as a landlord, have their contact information.
  • Title to any vehicles
  • A list of insurance policies, including health, automobile, homeowner's or renter's, and life insurance, along with policy numbers and contact information for insurance companies
  • Estate plans, including wills, trusts, advance health directives, HIPAA releases, and powers of attorney.

That last item may be one of the most important. If it is suddenly important for you to take over your parent's financial or medical decision, having a power of attorney is the most seamless way to allow this to happen. Otherwise, you will need to go to court to obtain guardianship, which will require time, expense, and possibly your presence. If you don't have a power of attorney for your parent, talk to an estate planning attorney with them next time you're together.

It Takes a Village

The saying "it takes a village" famously refers to the raising of a child, but it also applies to the care of an elderly person. If you can't be nearby in case of emergency, you'll need to build a network of people on the ground who can check on your parent and get information to you as needed. Ideally, one of these people will be a neighbor who can be alert to signs that something isn't right, such as newspapers piling up on the doorstep. It's preferable, of course, if this person touches base with your parent regularly enough that they're alert to a potential problem before it erupts into a crisis. You may, if you and your parent are comfortable doing so, wish to give them a key to the house.

Develop a list of contacts including neighbors, doctors and care providers. If your parent was religious, even if they hadn't been able to attend services in a while, stay in contact with their clergyperson.

Develop a list of contacts including neighbors, doctors and care providers. If your parent was religious, even if they hadn't been able to attend services in a while, stay in contact with their clergyperson. Many clergy visit homebound parishioners. While it's not a priest, pastor, or rabbi's job to act as a social worker or ensure the safety of a parishioner, if they do happen to visit and see cause for concern, it's good for them to be aware that they can let you know.

If you are concerned about your parent in their home, but not convinced they need to live in a more protective setting, investigate local agencies or private workers who can bridge the gap. You may want to hire an independent advocate to help coordinate your parent's care and check in regularly with you. You can find an advocate through a private service (such as Care.com) or a local social services agency. Some agencies may offer advocacy services for free.

Take Advantage of Technology

It's hard being away from a parent who needs your help, but advances in technology make things easier. And with the aging population, more apps, services and tools are being developed every day. Whether you need your parent to be reminded to take their medications, need to arrange transportation to appointments, or just want regular check-ins to know they're okay, there's technology to help you—and them—have more peace of mind while you're apart.

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Categories: Elder Law

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