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Caring From a Distance

It is estimated the Baby Boomer generation is turning 60-years old at the rate of 10,00 people a day. There can be no doubt our aging society is causing a complete shift in our social structure. It is estimated that as our “senior” population doubles by the year 2040, more adults will care for aging parents than will care for young children. Today many working adults already find themselves struggling to keep up as parent responsibilities are layered on top of child care responsibilities. This group of adults caught in a dual role of family caregiving is known as the sandwich generation.

Sometimes it only takes a holiday visit to our parent’s house or a late night phone call to realize we too are part of the new sandwich generation.  Many of us are unprepared for this new role and don’t know where to begin or what our new responsibilities entail. Our undertaking can be even more complicated if our parents live in another state or across the country. Fortunately, more and more resources are becoming available to inform and support family caregivers. Some basic guidelines are included below.

Assess the Situation

Whether you discover your parents are struggling with day to day home maintenance or serious medical issues, it is important to get a complete picture of their health status.  Don’t be afraid to ask parents questions about their health or the things they are struggling with at home. An unannounced visit to their home may tell a much better story than a planned holiday visit, as issues may be more visible without the distraction of relatives, holiday cheer and seasonal decorations. It is important that you do not immediately become patronizing, overreact or be overly critical once you discover unhealthy or unsafe living conditions. Take some time to first understand and listen to your parents and inform yourself of their challenges and concerns.

There are three primary assessments that can be done that require professional assistance: a medical assessment, a cognitive assessment and an assessment of “Activities of Daily Living” (ADL’s). This last group includes items such as socialization, personal hygiene and the ability to prepare meals, take medications and manage finances. Medical professionals, social workers and Geriatric Care Managers may be able to assist with these important evaluations. An evaluation or review of long and short term financial plans is also advisable.

Organize Information

Discuss the location of important medical, legal and financial documents with your parents and determine if they are willing to release copies of information to you. If they prefer to keep paperwork in the hands of legal or financial representatives, that is their prerogative. And while a sense of independence or pride may prevent them from turning everything over to you, they may at least be willing to share the names of trusted individuals or institutions. At a minimum, you should possess or know the whereabouts of their date of birth, social security information and Medical Insurance information. 

Your parents should be encouraged to assign Financial and Healthcare Powers of Attorney complete or update Wills and Advanced Directives. 

Gather Support

Long Distance Care giving often involves a team approach. Your responsibility is to help those team members understand their roles and keep communications open. Resources will vary for every family, and may involve medical professionals, social services, care managers, home care providers, financial advisers and more.

Additional support for your parents in the form of relatives, close friends, neighbors, religious leaders and other associates are equally as important. These individuals often become the people you rely on most for day to day updates and oversight for your parents. Obtain a copy of your parents’ local phone book or personal address book if possible.

Establish a Plan

Discuss short and long term options with your parents based on the advice of professionals along with your parents’ personal wishes. Once areas of necessary support have been identified, set up a schedule for communicating with local care givers and other family members to make sure things are progressing as planned. Be prepared for sudden changes in health or mental health status.

Consider all the options before moving older relatives. While moving a parent closer may seem to be the best solution for you, in-home services may permit them to remain in their familiar home, which is preferred by many older adults. In the event of a move, qualified moving agents can help coordinate all aspects of a relocation project, including planning, scheduling, organizing, shipping, packing, storage and even professional referrals to real estate agents.  

Recognize your Limitations

Frequent travel to visit parents can be stressful and may have a significant impact on your job or immediate family. Be sure to establish a budget for travel funds and set up a network of support with family, friends and child care services. Discuss your parents’ situation with your supervisors and Human Resources department at the workplace so they may better accommodate changes in your schedule.  Ask your spouse and children for personal or emotional support when it is needed.

Don’t overlook signs of stress, which are quite common for caregivers. Chronic fatigue, weight loss or gain, indecisiveness, sleeplessness and irritability are all symptoms of the stress you may be under.  Give yourself a break by relying on your spouse, friends, family and professional resources.  Be sure to eat healthy, exercise and maintain regular sleeping hours.