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Long-Distance Caregiving

(This site topped another milestone yesterday, with over 60 visitors!  I’m repeatedly amazed, and gratified, to see how many people read my words, and what diverse countries they come from.  I pray that I will continue to be worthy of this attention. )

Increasingly, in this day and age, we find ourselves living at some distance from our parents.  This makes it difficult when Mom and Dad reach the age when they need help taking care of the day-to-day business of living and managing their homes.  Personally speaking, I remember 30 years ago, when my mother used to drive 1 1/2 hours one way every weekend to check on her parents and clean house for them, then drive home again the same day.  Thankfully, Grandpa and Grandma had neighbors who could keep an eye on them during the week.  But, in my work with the aging population, I’ve often come across people who live as much as a couple hundred miles from their parents, and are torn when it comes to providing for their welfare.  Here are some suggestions that might be helpful.

1.  Get to know the neighbors.  Locate one or two neighbors whom you can trust, and who can look in on your parents occasionally.  Exchange phone numbers with them and, if you and your parents feel comfortable, give them a key to your parents’ home.  Program their phone number into your parents’ telephone, and encourage them to contact their neighbors if a problem arises.  (I remember when my grandfather’s neighbor called my mother, to report that her dad wasn’t acting like his old self.)

2.  Get to know the mail carrier.  In many smaller towns (and some larger ones), the mail is still delivered by the same person day after day.  Perhaps he/she could be entrusted to knock on the front door and deliver the mail personally, instead of just leaving it in the box.  Or, at the very least, he could take note if the mail hasn’t been taken out of the box for a couple of days.  I’ve heard of more than one observant mail carrier who called for help when he/she suspected that something wasn’t quite right.

3.  Get to know the bankers.  My husband is growing quite fond of doing our banking on-line, or via the ATM.  But many of the older generation still prefer to do their banking face-to-face.  Introduce yourself to the staff at the local branch bank, and ask them to let you know if they notice something suspicious.  (For example, if your parents suddenly start withdrawing large amounts of money, or if a stranger accompanies them to the safe deposit box.)  Also, be sure to have your name added to your parents’ accounts, so you can sign checks and get copies of bank statements if needed.

4.  Get to know your parents’ best friends.  As with their neighbors, it is possible that a close friend of your parents may be more than willing to let you know if they’re not acting like themselves, or might be easily persuaded to do small favors such as giving them a ride to the grocery store.  Contact them regularly, and build a relationship with them.  When you do go to visit, try to take your parents’ friend out to lunch or buy her flowers, or send her a birthday card.  Chances are, she will enjoy the extra attention as well.

5.  Get to know the community services.  Contact the local United Way or local Area on Aging to find out what is available in your parents’ community.  Find out the eligibility criteria for their services, before you actually need them.

6.  Get to know the local home health services network.  Again, it’s better to know what’s available, and what it takes in order to receive services from them, before the time comes when your parents actually need it.  If your parents are already receiving services, make sure they provide you with frequent reports as to how they’re doing.

7.   Bring home the phone book.  The next time you visit your parents, get a copy of the local yellow pages and take it home with you.  Bookmark repairmen that your parents like to use, stores where they like to shop, local restaurants that deliver, and so on.

8.  Set up a chore services network.  Be sure to make a list of neighborhood students and other people who can help with mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, walking the dog, and so on.  The local area on aging, or your parents’ church, or another community agency may be able to help you here.

When you are able to visit your parents, make the most of your time.  Spend as much time as possible just enjoying your parents’ company, of course.  But pay attention to little things while you’re there, and make it a point to do what you can to enable your parents to live independently (and safely) in their own home.  Make a list, so you don’t forget anything.  Here are some good questions to ask while you’re there:

1.  Is mail left unopened?  Are newspapers piling up?

2.  Are the bills being paid?

3.  Is Mom or Dad ordering an excessive amount of things from catalogs or television shopping channels?

4.  Is your parents’ activity level the same as it has been?  Are they going out to visit friends, to attend church, to attend social events, if these are things they have always enjoyed?  When was the last time they saw their friends?

5.  What’s in the refrigerator?  Spoiled food?  Too little food?  Too much that’s not healthy?

6.  Does Mom repeat herself frequently?  Do you get the feeling that she’s not understanding, or remembering, what you tell her?

7.  When you go shopping, or go out to eat, is Dad having trouble adding up the bill or making change?

8.  Try to schedule doctor’s visits for when you are in town.  Many physicians’ offices will try to work around your visit, if they know you are coming in from out of town.  Even if it’s just a routine visit, be sure to ask any questions that you may think of.  By all means, be sure that your parents’ doctors have your phone numbers in case of emergency.

9.  If your parents are willing and able, be sure that they have a computer and know how to use it.  The internet is an invaluable tool for keeping up with how they are doing, and there are all sorts of programs available for staying in touch via e-mail or chat.  Smart phones have a wealth of apps that can be of help here, too.

(The above lists were inspired by those given in an extremely well-written book called “Caregiving as Your Parents Age,” by Dr.  Linda Rhodes.)

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