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Four Tips for Making Long Distance Caregiving Work

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With a lot of talk these days about children moving back in with parents and intergenerational homes, it is easy to overlook the huge growth in “distance caregiving” in America.  In 1997 the number of distance caregivers – family who are caring for an older parent in another location – was about 7 million; it has since doubled to an estimated 14 million today.  I came across a study on distance caregiving by a nurse oncologist, Polly Mazanec, that addressed a lot of the issues I see as a geriatric care manager with my own clients. 

We often get a call from a son or daughter (and yes, it is more often a daughter), because they are concerned about some life issue of an older parent who still resides here where we work.   It can be a change for the worse in a chronic medical condition, a sense that the parent is “confused,” a progression of a cancer, a fall or a home security concern.  But almost without exception, the distance caregiver clearly sounds stressed.  When I talk about “distance,” there is no magical number of miles to be distant, if it is perceived as distance then that becomes stressful.  Distance can be measured in miles, but if the caregiver has a strenuous workload or is the sole wage earner in this recession or has family obligations in their own home, the ability to make frequent trips to help mom or dad is limited.

Caring for an older parent from distance is stressful, because there can be a long interval between visits or a most recent visit has shown visible changes in mom or dad or there has been a change in treatment regimen that the distance caregiver does not understand.  And the medical change actually can be more stressful for the distance caregiver than for the patient.  The stress comes as much from anxiety and guilt than it does from concern for the elder’s well-being, a stress owing to having “not been there to help.”

Based on our experience, I offer some suggestions for long distance caregivers:

  1. Help with the things that can be done at distance – arrange for meals to be delivered, housekeeping details to be attended, a checkbook balanced, in-home help to be present, or a neighbor to look-in at intervals.
  2. Appreciate that being an adult yourself may not release you from the way you related to your parents back when you were a child at home – give yourself permission to help as you can without feeling guilt about not being there.
  3. Enlist the help of a local advocate – this can be a nurse clinician at the doctor’s office or a geriatric care manager, but it is helpful to have someone to monitor and manage and then inform you.
  4. Acknowledge that hands-on is not the only kind of care; distance caregiving can be a very important part of the village it takes to care for an elder or other person with special needs.

Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Case Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families throughout metropolitan Chicago.  Please email your questions to Charlotte Bishop.

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