Long-Distance Caregiving for Elders

Tips for taking care of your elderly parent or relative from afar.

By , Attorney

Taking care of an aging parent or loved one when you live far away can be challenging. Yet nowadays, over seven million adults in the United States are acting as long-distance caregivers for elderly parents or relatives -- in no small part because people are living longer and moving more frequently. But dealing with emergencies and day-to-day issues when your elderly loved one lives an hour or more away pose both logistical and emotional difficulties. When you get the emergency call in the middle of the night, how do you determine the severity of the problem? Do you hop on a plane or stay home and try to handle the problem via the phone and the Internet? How do you know what daily help your parent or relative needs? And how do you get that help when you don't live nearby and aren't familiar with local resources?

The key to successful long-distance caregiving is preparation. By planning ahead, you can better deal with emergencies and make sure your parent or loved one gets the daily services he or she needs. This article explains how to assess an older relative's situation and needs, collect and store important information, access local services, and get help from others -- all to ensure that you stay in touch and on top of things.

Assess Your Elderly Relative's Living Situation and Needs

The first step in providing care from afar is to assess how your loved one is doing and what additional help might be needed. Plan a visit of sufficient duration so that you can spend time with your elderly parent and observe the situation. Talk to other family members, your parents' friends, doctors, and other people who have contact with your loved one. Most important, involve your elderly parent in this process as much as possible. You may also want to get help from a professional, like a geriatric care manager. (To learn more about geriatric care managers, see the "Get Help From Others" section below).

Here are some things to look for and think about:

Is the Home Safe and Accessible?

Now that your parent or relative is older, some aspects of their home may pose a safety hazard or prevent them from caring for themselves properly. For example, throw rugs may pose a slipping danger to an older person who is unsure on their feet or using a walker; cabinet hardware and stove dials that are difficult to use with arthritic fingers may prevent a senior from preparing meals; and bathrooms without safety bars may make toileting or bathing dangerous.

Go through each room of the home, the yard, and the garage thinking about the following:

  • Safety. Does anything pose a safety problem in the room? Can the senior move around the room and perform tasks safely?
  • Accessibility. Is everything accessible to the senior? Can they reach things and work switches, doors, cabinets, and plugs? Can they perform necessary or desired tasks in this room?
  • Adaptability. Are there things in the room that could be adapted so they are easier for the senior to reach or use or so that the senior can get around more easily and safely?

Then, make a list of modifications that would help your aging loved one continue to perform the tasks necessary to care for themselves and navigate around the home safely.

To learn more about the home modification process, including planning and paying for renovations, see Nolo's article Home Modifications for the Elderly.

Are Older Relatives Caring for Themselves Properly?

While you are visiting, take careful note of how your loved one is caring for him or herself, focusing on things like:

  • Food. Are they able to prepare nutritious meals? Are the refrigerator and pantry stocked with food?
  • Medical care. Is the senior taking all medications in the right dosages and at the correct time? Are they able to fill their own prescriptions at the drug store? Can they get to doctor appointments or to the lab? Do they remember and attend doctor appointments? You may have to talk to your relative's doctors' offices to get information.
  • Home care. Is the home relatively clean? Is the kitchen clean and food stored safely? Is clutter posing a safety hazard?
  • Finances. Are there piles of mail around the house? Are bills lying around? To learn about other warning signs that could mean your loved one needs help with finances, see Nolo's article Helping Seniors Manage Money and Finances.
  • Driving ability. Is your aging relative able to drive safely? For tips on determining if your loved one is safe on the road, see Nolo's article When Should Elders Stop Driving?

Does Your Relative Have Adequate Social Interaction?

Ask questions about your loved one's daily life to find out if they have regular contact with friends or family. For example, do they go to activities at senior centers or in the community? Do they have any hobbies or attend classes?

What is Your Relative's Mental State?

Look for clues as to how your aging relative is feeling. Do they seem depressed? Anxious? Scared? Overwhelmed?

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