In March 2020, six California counties issued shelter-in-place orders to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading through the Bay Area. State officials quickly followed their lead, issuing stay-at-home orders for all of California just a few days later. Within a few weeks, nearly 20 states had issued lockdown orders and/or social-distancing requirements.
Although these orders were meant to protect people from a dangerous new virus, they had some negative effects, especially on seniors already struggling with social isolation. As a result, many seniors went from having limited social contact to having no contact at all.
To combat the negative physical and psychological effects of isolation, many organizations started incorporating technology into their programs. For example, instead of meeting in person, some groups held Zoom meetings or had members check on each other via telephone. Medical professionals also started offering telehealth appointments instead of requiring patients to visit local hospitals and clinics.
Because of these changes, senior caregivers now have more tools available to help them monitor their loved ones from afar, including medical alert systems, health trackers and communication apps.
This guide offers tips to help long-distance caregivers make sense of their roles and become more confident in providing senior care when they can’t be with their aging loved ones. You’ll find tips and resources to help you share caregiving duties with other family members, connect with your loved one virtually and make good medical and legal decisions no matter where you are.
An Overview of Long-Distance Caregiving
Before you step into the role of a long-distance caregiver, you need to know what it entails. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the benefits of caregiving and some challenges you’re likely to face as you care for your aging parent from a distance.
Definition of Long-Distance Caregiving
The term long-distance caregiver is usually used to describe someone who lives at least an hour away from the person who needs care. An hour of travel time may not seem like much, but the miles add up quickly when you’re traveling back and forth to help an aging parent manage their affairs.
Examples of Long-Distance Caregivers
Many people become long-distance caregivers for seniors who need extra help maintaining their health and independence:
- Adult children
- Younger siblings
- Aunts and uncles
- Members of the clergy
Benefits and Challenges of Long-Distance Caregiving
- Tending to an aging parent can be a highly rewarding experience, as it gives you a chance to care for your parent. It also gives you extra opportunities to express your love and strengthen your relationship with an aging parent, giving you positive memories that you’ll cherish for years to come.
- In your role as a caregiver, you also have the power to help your aging parent get the best possible medical care, which may increase their life span and reduce the risk of complications from health problems.
- Despite the benefits of long-distance caregiving, there are also some significant challenges, especially if you don’t live in the same state or country as your loved one. The further away you live, the more difficult it is to attend medical appointments, visit your loved one when they’re sick or make sure your aging parent is in good health.
- Travel costs are another challenge, especially if you don’t live within driving distance of your loved one. You may need to purchase airline tickets, stay in hotels along your travel route or pay extra to transport important items between locations. Many long-distance caregivers also struggle to identify local resources to help their loved ones with meals, grocery shopping, medical transportation and personal care.
Long-Distance Caregiving: Roles and Responsibilities
You may not be able to see your loved one every day, but there are plenty of things you can do from afar to help an aging parent stay healthy and happy. Some responsibilities you may adopt are:
- Manage the household budget and pay bills
- Review insurance documents
- Make appointments health care providers
- Communicate with attorneys regarding estate issues
- Hire in-person caregivers and follow up to make sure they’re providing all the services you’ve requested
- Hire home contractors to make repairs
- Make a list of medications your loved one takes
- Update family and friends about your senior’s well-being
- Video chat with your loved one regularly
Sharing Caregiving Responsibilities with Family Members
It’s great to have family members to share the work involved in caring for an aging loved one; however, it can also be stressful. Unless everyone has a clear understanding from the very beginning, there may be some confusion about what each person is supposed to do or how often they’re to check in on your parent.
Ask for Help
If you need help caring for an aging parent, the first step is to ask family members if they’re able and willing to help. Avoid assuming someone will or has time to provide care. Others may have demanding careers, children with special needs or other personal circumstances that prevent them from being as involved as they’d like.
Discuss the type of assistance required and how much time you would like them to devote to caregiving duties. Be specific; if you need someone to stop by your parent’s home several times per week, don’t say once in a while. Setting clear expectations can help you avoid frustration and conflict.
Build a Care Team
The composition of the care team will depend on the structure of your family and the strength of the relationships among family members. Include your siblings, your parent’s siblings, your adult children (if applicable), cousins and other relatives. If your loved one has a lot of community support, neighbors, friends and clergy members should also be added to the care team.
Create a Caregiving Schedule
Once you have a care team in place, it’s time to assign responsibilities and create a schedule that ensures your loved one gets as much help as possible. Keep in mind that not everyone possesses the same abilities and characteristics. When you’re assigning duties, it’s best to think about each person’s work experience, personality traits and skills.
If one of your siblings is a nurse, for example, that person is a natural choice for duties related to health care. Someone who works in the legal field may be a good choice for duties related to estate planning and legal advocacy. You need someone to be assertive when talking with health care providers, attorneys and other professionals on behalf of your parent, so it’s not a good idea to choose a family member who avoids conflict or feels nervous about speaking up.
When you’re ready to create a caregiving schedule, ask everyone to give you a list of days and hours they’re available to help your aging parent. If you have everyone’s availability, you’ll have a much easier time figuring out caregiving coverage throughout the week. Before proceeding, send the proposed schedule to everyone on the care team for approval and to ensure that no last-minute changes are required.
You can use our downloadable form below as your own “Caregiving Roster” and fill it in with your care team members’ roles and availability.
Using Medical Alert Systems to Help With Long-Distance Caregiving
Long-distance caregiving can be difficult, but medical alert systems have made it much easier to protect aging parents from a variety of health and environmental threats.
Several manufacturers make in-home and on-the-go alert systems, giving older adults access to immediate assistance if there’s an emergency. Medical alert systems typically have the following basic features:
- Connection to a response center: When you live far away, it’s important for your loved one to have immediate access to someone nearby who can help in an emergency. Many medical alert systems allow users to connect with trained professionals within a matter of seconds, making it easier to summon help during a medical emergency or hazardous situation.
- Long battery life: Medical alert systems are designed to have a long battery life so your loved one doesn’t have to worry about the batteries dying in the middle of an emergency. Some companies, such as Lifeline, monitor battery life and automatically send users new alert buttons when battery strength declines.
- Two-way voice communication: If your loved one gets injured, they may be unable to type a message or press a button. Two-way communication allows a user to speak directly with someone at the response center, making it easier to get help.
Some medical alert systems are highly advanced, giving your aging parent access to additional features that can help them stay safe while aging in place:
- Location tracking: If you worry that your aging parent will wander away from the house, a medical alert system with location tracking can give you extra peace of mind. Some systems have built-in GPS monitors to help you quickly determine your loved one’s position and send help if needed. This feature is especially helpful for seniors with dementia, as fear, confusion and other dementia symptoms increase the risk of wandering or getting lost.
- Smoke detection: The risk of dying in a house fire increases with age, making fire safety an important consideration for long-distance caregivers. Older adults may fall asleep with lit cigarettes, forget that they have food cooking on the stove or engage in other habits that increase the risk of a fire. If this happens to your loved one, a medical alert system with early smoke detection can summon first responders before the fire spreads.
- Carbon monoxide detection: Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless, colorless gas that forms due to incomplete fuel combustion. Exposure to this gas can cause serious illness or death, with the Minnesota Department of Health reporting that unintentional exposure leads to about 400 deaths per year in the United States. Some medical alert systems have built-in CO detectors to alert you to elevated carbon monoxide levels in your loved one’s home.
- Fall detection: Falls are a serious problem for older adults and their caregivers, as a simple fall can lead to traumatic brain injuries, fractures and other serious damages. The problem is so widespread that older adult falls account for $50 billion in annual medical costs, with Medicaid and Medicare footing about 75% of the bill. Some companies have responded by including automated fall detection in their medical alert systems. This allows an older adult to call for help if they’re injured and can’t get to a telephone.
- Health tracking: When you’re far away, it’s difficult to tell if your loved one is experiencing any concerning health symptoms. Some medical alert systems can track sleep patterns, activity levels and other metrics, giving you valuable insight into your loved one’s health status.
Other Technology for Long-Distance Caregiving
The COVID-19 pandemic completely changed the way long-distance caregivers interact with their loved ones. Not all that long ago, you were limited to telephone calls, text messages and occasional visits, but now you can see your loved one on video, making it easier to determine how well they’re doing. These are some of the most popular tools available for caregivers and their loved ones:
- Facebook Messenger: If you and your parent both have Facebook accounts, you can use the Messenger tool to have text-based chats or video calls. You don’t need a lot of technical knowledge to start a video call, either. Simply press the video camera icon and wait for the call to connect. You can use Facebook Messenger with multiple devices, including smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers, making this a versatile tool for older adults and their long-distance caregivers.
- Zoom: Many organizations use Zoom to facilitate online meetings, but the software is also helpful for long-distance caregivers. The easiest way to use it is to create a meeting and send your loved one an invitation via email or text message. Then all they have to do is click the link to enter the meeting.
- Video devices: Amazon and Facebook have made it easier for older adults to communicate with loved ones by introducing video devices with large screens. These devices are less complicated than laptops or desktop computers, so they’re easy to use even if your loved one isn’t updated on all the latest technology. Voice-activated features are also ideal for users who have arthritis or other conditions that make it difficult to push buttons or click a mouse.
Health and Nutrition Trackers
When you don’t see your loved one every day, it’s difficult to determine if they’re taking their medications, eating nutritious foods and managing their chronic health conditions appropriately. Fortunately, technology has made it possible to track key health metrics from anywhere in the world.
For example, if your loved one has a heart problem, you can get them a wearable device that tracks heart rate and rhythm. Multiple users have reported that their wearable devices have saved their lives by noticing potentially life-threatening symptoms and encouraging them to seek medical attention, including a man who was diagnosed with a 100% blockage of his right coronary artery.
For caregivers who are concerned about a loved one’s dietary habits, there are dozens of mobile apps available to track caloric intake, identify potential nutrient deficiencies and record physical activity. Nutrition apps also make it easier for older adults to follow modified diets for diabetes, kidney and heart disease and other health conditions. A senior with chronic kidney disease could use one of these apps to track their sodium and potassium intake.
Advice for First-Time Caregivers
It’s natural to be nervous about stepping into your new role as a long-distance caregiver, but there are plenty of things you can do to make yourself a more effective advocate for an aging parent. When you’re ready to get started, follow these tips for a smooth transition.
Stepping Into Your Role
If you have siblings, adult children or other relatives concerned about your aging parent, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. You may be the one who’s responsible for making legal and medical decisions, but that doesn’t mean you should exclude family members who want to help.
One of the first things you should do is have a family meeting where you can discuss your parent’s wishes and determine the best way to respect them. Find out if other family members will provide in-person care or money towards your loved one’s caregiving expenses.
This helps you determine if you need to hire caregivers or coordinate services from local nonprofit organizations or government agencies. If a family member can’t offer much assistance, try not to feel resentful. It’s better for everyone to be realistic about what they can do instead of making empty promises they can’t fulfill.
As a long-distance caregiver, you must be familiar with your parent’s medical history and current health concerns. You’ll need this information to advocate effectively when speaking with doctors, social workers, therapists and other health professionals. When you’re ready to step into your caregiving role, take time to create a medical binder filled with information about your parent’s medical conditions, medications and nutritional concerns.
You also need to know about any herbal supplements, vitamins, minerals, essential oils or other over-the-counter products your loved one uses. Some of these products aren’t recommended for people with certain health conditions. If your parent takes blood pressure medications, they may not be able to take supplements containing L-arginine. Certain supplements can also thin out blood, making them dangerous for people who already take aspirin and other blood thinners.
It’s also important to understand your parent’s nutritional needs. Many older adults have to follow modified diets to control the symptoms of chronic diseases. People with heart disease may need to reduce their sodium intake or track how much cholesterol they consume, while people with chronic kidney disease may have to avoid high-potassium foods.
Understanding your parent’s physical limitations can help you determine how much help they need when you can’t be with them. When you’re gathering health-related information, ask the following questions to determine if they have any limitations that could make it difficult to bathe, use the bathroom and perform other activities of daily living.
- Do you have joint pain or stiffness that makes it difficult to grasp objects?
- Do you have trouble walking short distances or up and down steps?
- Has your doctor prescribed a walker, cane or other mobility aid to get around?
- Do you have balance problems?
- Are you able to get into and out of bed safely?
- Do you have any back problems that make it difficult to bend down or reach for objects?
Make the Most Out of Your Visits
Depending on how far away you live, you may not get to visit your aging parent more than a few times per year. It’s important to make the most of each visit, especially if you’re concerned about your loved one’s health status.
An in-person visit gives you an opportunity to see your parent up close and look for signs of illness or injury. It also allows you to look around the house and grounds and determine if you need to hire someone to help with housekeeping or make repairs.
Here are a few things you can do to strengthen your relationship during an in-person visit:
- Look through old photos and talk about some of your most cherished memories.
- Play your parent’s favorite board games.
- Share some of your favorite family recipes.
- You may be concerned about your parent’s well-being and want to make changes quickly. Take care to be respectful of their wishes and include them in the decision making process.
- Plan to do several activities outside of the house. Living alone can be isolating, so an in-person visit is a good time to take your parent to an art museum or attend a symphony performance. If your loved one is housebound, bring the entertainment to them. Many attractions now offer virtual tours or videos focused on some of their most popular exhibits.
Signs Your Parent May Need Additional Help
After you settle in, look around the house and see if you notice any signs that your parent needs extra help. Keep an eye out for the following:
- Unopened mail and unpaid bills
- Dishes piled in the sink
- Empty cabinets or pantry shelves
- Expired food in the refrigerator
- Lack of heat or water
- Broken appliances
- Damaged light fixtures
- Unusual levels of clutter
If you see any of these signs, use your visit as an opportunity to contact local professionals and arrange for them to provide additional services. If the pantry is bare, you can have someone deliver groceries or drive your parent to a local senior center for hot meals. For broken appliances, damaged fixtures and other household problems, you may need to hire an electrician, plumber, HVAC technician or other home service professional.
State Resources for Long-Distance Caregivers
If you’re a first-time caregiver, don’t be afraid to seek advice from reputable sources if you’re unsure how to help your loved one maintain their health, safety and independence when you can’t be present.
The state agencies listed below can connect you with a wide range of services, including Medicare counseling, local medical providers, meal delivery services and low-cost transportation. If you’re thinking about purchasing a medical alert system for your loved one, your state agency may also refer you to a reliable provider.