Sometimes life takes a twist and forces you to learn new lessons. Case in point – when my mother started having memory issues in 2002, my father wanted me to become really involved in handling the situation since she always would listen to me. The problem was that I lived in a city seven hours away from their home. Dad offered his side of the story, but I figured that there were other perspectives (including Mom’s) that needed to be taken into account. Therefore, I was left trying to decipher what was going on during our weekly phone calls and rare visits.
Slowly but surely since that first phone call, I increasingly have taken on caregiving duties for both parents. My mother’s mental issues declined and she moved closer to me in 2005. She soon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and placed in a memory care unit, where she passed away in 2007. My father also moved near me in 2006 after downsizing and selling my parents’ West Texas home. Since then, his own health has declined, which has limited his independence and forced him to rely (at times, grudgingly) on me.
Through it all, I have had a significant number of lessons thrown my way. I’ve had to learn how to make decisions while also taking my parents’ desires into consideration. I’ve learned a lot about Alzheimer’s disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure. I’ve dealt with legal documents, home health care and rehab facilities. I’ve probated my mother’s will, changed my father’s car title, cleaned out a storage locker and handled Dad’s stock transfers. I’ve tried to keep family members regularly apprised while also seeking ways to replenish my own internal resources.
Watching for Smoke Signals from Afar
My tale is not unique. Lately, I’ve found more and more of my friends are finding themselves in the same situation I once faced. In one case, a friend’s mother suddenly died on Thanksgiving. Since then, my friend has had to gauge her father’s many health issues and manage his day-to-day challenges, despite living two hours away. Another friend recently spoke with me about what to expect when placing his mother in a nursing home in distant city.
Unfortunately, adult children often are blindsided by these new challenges. Sometimes, it’s because a loved one doesn’t want to “be a burden” (to use my parents’ words). In other cases, loved ones don’t fully comprehend the ramifications of the health issues that they’re facing. Many times we only see our loved ones during holidays so we don’t get regular feedback that something’s awry. On occasion, adult children do get hints of potential problems, but their own busy lives cause them to misread or ignore the emerging smoke signals.
Just to be clear, long-distance caregiving can mean many things: providing emotional and physical support to the primary caregiver; coordinating services for the loved one; or managing medical bills or finances. This role also may require you to keep up to date with the loved one’s physical and mental capacity through reports from doctor’s visits, phone calls with friends and discussions with home health staff.
How can you anticipate what may face you in this role? One way is to read the National Institute on Aging’s excellent publication, So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving. This booklet is divided into sections that cover caregiving ideas, ways to find caregiving assistance and support for the caregiver, and points to remember during caregiving. The publication also provides a valuable list of resources for additional information and support.
We live in a disbursed society in which family members often live far from their elders. Therefore, it’s imperative for adult children to start having conversations with family members – their parents, their siblings and other key relatives – about what caregiving will look like. Trust me, as hard as that conversation is, it’s important to have “the talk” sooner rather than later when you’re forced to scramble to make sense of the caregiving situation.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Mayo Clinic. (2013). Caregiving: Tips for Long-Distance Caregivers.
National Institute of Aging. (2011). So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving.
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