Empty highway

Caring for a Loved One from Afar

1/20/15 by Jen Finstad
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Long-distance travel makes me reflective. I think about the 337 miles between my parents and my adult life where my job and my husband reside. And as I traveled recently on an Amtrak train to visit my folks, I couldn’t help but wonder if this type of travel would be useful if and when my parents require more assistance.

We, adult children, have spread our wings to conquer the world. Eventually we are called back to the nest. We offer to step up to the plate when we're needed. Often times, we continue on with our busy daily routines with our own families until a diagnosis or a health concern for our family member indicates a shift in how things have been done — or more of our time is needed than the occasional phone call and visit.

Most of us are shocked by this need. We say, "But they were fine last time I saw them," or "They've been like that for a while." We are frustrated, nervous, and honestly a bit scared. Having to balance your own family schedules and work with caring for your family member can be overwhelming and difficult to manage.

No one has ever said that long-distance caregiving was any easier than being in the same city as your family member or friend. We may not always be doing a physical task for them, but our mind floats there often. We wonder if they’re eating enough or taking their meds or closing themselves off to the world.

Distance, however, doesn't have to make us feel helpless. Even from a thousand miles away, there are many tasks we can do.

  1. Plan ahead. Work with your family member or friend who needs more help to have all records, important information, and release forms signed and ready to go.
  2. Research the city’s Area Agency on Aging. Each state has one and they are a goldmine for resources and potential partner agencies in the journey. You can find a list of agencies here.
  3. Find local support. Look for a caregiver consultant and a support group in your own area to gain better support.
  4. Hold a family meeting.  Discuss future options for Mom or Dad how to meet their needs now. Text, Skype, FaceTime siblings and all interested parties and don’t forget including the person in question, if they’re able to be part. Additional tips and ideas can be found here.
  5. Find resources before you need them. Be familiar with your trusty resources as care situations change and you need to adapt with them. Doing the work before hand will ensure that you know who you can turn to as life changes and unexpected situations arise.

Being a long-distance caregiver doesn’t mean that life is more balanced or whole. We research resources online that could be used to help our family member or friend from afar, we become transit experts on the least expensive way to get from here to there, and we do our best to know the ins and outs of the diagnosis.

We learn through mishaps how to advocate for our voice to be heard — and for us to be recognized as part of the care team even if we are thousands of miles away.

Jen Finstad is a caregiver consultant and social worker at Amherst H. Wilder Foundation's Caregiver ServicesThis article originally appeared in Minnesota Good Age magazine.

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