Tips for caregiving at a distance

What do you do if you live miles away?

Maintain regular contact through visits, telephone calls and emails.

You live thousands of miles away from your father who is in his eighties and on his own. How do you keep tabs on how he is coping? Is he eating properly? Taking his medication? Staying active?

Caring for an aging parent or relative who lives in a different town or province—or even a different country—creates unique organizational and financial challenges.

Put systems and strategies in place early, if possible before problems occur, recommends Baycrest social worker, Sylvia Nathansan. Bring up those difficult discussions around physical or mental decline so your loved one can be involved in the planning process, she says. “It may be one of the hardest conversations you can have, but is probably also one of the most important.”

Nathansan, who counsels older adults and their families at Baycrest’s Seniors Counselling and Referral Services, has had personal experience of providing care to a parent living in another city. She is not alone; more than one in five Canadian caregivers look after someone living at least an hour away.

Nathansan’s 12 tips for caregiving at a distance include:

  • Assemble a medical care notebook with information on current medical issues, allergies, prescriptions and doctor contact numbers.
  • Meet your relative’s doctor. Organize a privacy release, with your relative’s permission, to allow doctors to speak to you about ongoing medical issues.
  • Know where important information is kept, such as insurance policies, bank account numbers, investments details, a will.
  • Arrange power of attorney for financial and medical issues to avoid complicated legal situations later.
  • Discuss a living will or advance directives so wishes regarding life-prolonging medical treatments are known.
  • Maintain regular contact through visits, telephone calls and emails, especially if the senior is experiencing frequent falls, vagueness and memory loss or is physically frail. If you can’t be there in person, organize for someone else (friend, neighbour or a private agency) to check regularly and keep you updated.
  • Get to know friends and neighbours and obtain their contact information. They can be your eyes and ears. Have an agreed contact person to call if you can’t reach your loved one.
  • If increasing memory loss is suspected, arrange for a geriatric assessment. Internet searches will provide a list of local assessment clinics, public and private. Some hospitals, like Baycrest, provide such services.
  • Research local services that provide services such as personal care, meals and transportation. If loneliness is an issue, consider enrolment in local day centres.
  • An electronic alert can provide peace of mind. These range from devices that a person can activate to call for help to systems that detect if the wearer falls.
  • Don’t do it alone. Siblings can share the caregiving responsibilities and participate in a visit or telephone schedule.
  • Take care of yourself! Caregivers living far away can carry additional feelings of guilt and anxiety at not being able to be there. Maintain balance in your life and consider joining a support group for caregivers.

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