Four tips for effective distance caregiving

By Valerie
June 24, 2011

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Monday and a colleague interrupts me from a board meeting to take an important phone call.

It’s my brother from Toronto. The conversation is choppy.

It’s Dad. He’s had a massive stroke. Don’t fly home. He was a candidate for surgery and is recovering in hospital. He should be fine.

My brother repeats, “Don’t fly home … yet. I’ll call you tomorrow with an update.”

As a long-distance daughter concerned about my father’s care, I was at a unique disadvantage. I felt helpless, “out of the loop” and was struggling to understand the full extent of my father’s circumstances.

Telephone tag with health professionals, confidentiality obstacles and unfamiliarity with available resources in the community in which I grew up, I found being a long-distance caregiver incredibly challenging and frustrating.

As summer approaches (I’m an eternal optimistic), many adult children are travelling from afar to visit their aging parents. It can be shocking to see how much a parent has declined mentally, physically or emotionally since a previous trip.

Sometimes, elderly parents forget what the doctor told them or they choose not to burden their families with their problems or the degree of their illness. Distance caregiving is quite the ride — guilt for not doing enough or for not being there, sadness in accepting our aging loved one’s decline, anxiety and stress of frequent and unpredictable travel and fear of the unknown.

Talk First, Act Later: Before jumping in and getting too involved with researching what help is available, start with an evaluation of their aging loved one’s situation.

Collect information, be it during a visit or over the phone. Find out what’s been done by in town family, friends and community health professionals.

Understand the options for future care and housing options. Learn everything you can about your loved one’s disease or disability. This becomes the backbone of your care plan.

Build a Team that Works: Find out who is in regular contact with the person being cared for and ask them to be part of the care team.

Your team will include other family members and sibling, neighbours, close friends, community care providers, to name a few. Be clear in advance on what type of care and help is needed and assign everyone tasks best suited to their skills, availability and wiliness.

Get to Know the Locals: Build in time to research what programs and supports are available in the community. Ask your local care team members to make inquiries, collect brochures and visit seniors’ centres, etc.

Find a copy of the local phone directory and keep track of the who, what, when and whys related to community resources and services. Patience and persistence are a must to navigate a health care system from afar!

Keep Everyone In the Loop: Long-distance caregivers often feel left out of decisions or get information second hand. Finding a way to stay current and connected can help prevent family feuds and allow everyone to know and understand the options.

Designate one person as a primary contact person. A case manager or eldercare planner can also serve as the caregiver’s point person. Use an online calendar and task system such as Google Calendar that your care team can access and receive updates.

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Planning. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC