Long-Distance Caregiving: Coping with Aging Parents from Afar

It’s not easy to watch your parents age. It can be even more stressful when you’re trying to keep tabs from a distance. How do you know if they’re really OK?

The most important thing you can do may also be the most instinctive, say experts: Listen carefully. Even over the phone, you can hear signs that indicate a parent may be struggling with everyday living, such as forgetfulness or excessive worrying.

Even children who live far away can pick up on these changes. The important thing is to take them seriously, especially if they seem to be ongoing. The earlier a problem is dealt with, the better the outcome.


Getting started

If you do suspect a problem, try making a personal visit to your parents’ home if possible. You can look for outward signs such as a lack of organization, deterioration in the home, or weight loss.

Often, a friend of the parents may notice there is a problem first and will then contact the adult children. This person may also be able to help serve as a liaison going forward if you’re not able to be there.


It takes a village

The first step in helping your parents should be arranging for a complete medical examination. Start with your parents’ primary physician, or find a geriatric specialist.

One benefit of a geriatric specialist is that they often have many resources available they can point you toward. They also have specific training in the issues of the elderly and their families. Geriatric specialists often have staff members with specialized training as well.

Ideally, you would be able to accompany your parents to that first medical appointment. But if you can’t, you may want to enlist the help of  someone local and trusted who can attend the doctor’s visit and take notes.

Of course, you can’t expect a friend or neighbor to take on the longer-term issues that may arise from a medical evaluation. This is where resources such as the local Area Agency on Aging or senior citizens centers can be helpful. They may also be able to help you find a geriatric specialist for your parents’ initial evaluation.


Supporting siblings

If you have a sibling in the area who can do the day-to-day work of caring for your aging parents, keep in mind that the primary caregiver will need regular support and relief.

A caregiver can get burned out with the ongoing demands of care. It’s important to provide respite care, either by taking over for a week or weekend, or by bringing in another agency to help.

Communication is also important to avoid misunderstandings and to make sure everyone agrees on the care being given. The important thing is that the sibling who is responsible for the care should not feel as if they are being dumped on or unappreciated. Good communication can go a long way toward alleviating that.


Preventing problems

If an aging parent suddenly goes rapidly downhill mentally or physically, it’s time to get proactive. Involving the local Alzheimer’s Association chapter as soon as possible, even if the cause of the parent’s decline hasn’t been determined yet is highly recommended. The association can provide screening for cognitive impairment as well as resources and recommendations. Be prepared for the reality of cognitive impairment.

Right now the recommendation is that anyone 75 or older should be screened for cognitive impairment but some doctors expect that to change to 65 and older. If you catch these problems early, you can discuss with parents how they want things handled going forward.

Involving a geriatrician or an organization that specializes in elderly issues also can remove much of the burden of hard decisions if a parent does begin to decline.

When tough calls like when to quit driving or moving to the next step in care come from a professional, a parent will often be more cooperative, and there’s less family conflict.


7 things to listen for when talking to elderly parents

All of these can be indications that elderly parents are having problems living independently:

  1. Repeating themselves
  2. Calling at odd times
  3. Not understanding recent news events
  4. Having memory issues
  5. Sounding tearful or sad
  6. Withdrawing socially
  7. Worrying about financial issues