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An estimated 11 percent of family caregivers live at least an hour away from their loved one. Many have the same concerns and pressures local caregivers have – and then some. They tend to spend more of their own money on caregiving, for instance, because they’re more likely to need to hire help, take time off work (which may not be paid) and pay for travel. The most significant challenge they face, however, can simply be staying informed and assured that the person needing care is in good hands. A few things a long-distance caregiver can’t do without: good communication and a solid team on the ground.
Having proper access to information and the legal authority to make decisions is important for all primary caregivers, but it’s even more so for those handling care from a distance. For example, you’ll need signed documents permitting doctors to share information with you. Much of the arranging is best handled during an in-person visit, when you can work with your loved one to locate, organize and fill out necessary paperwork, and there will be plenty.
If your loved one hasn’t already designated a durable power of attorney for health care and financial decisions, ask whether she’d like you or someone else she unequivocally trusts to take on that crucial role. If there’s no power of attorney and they become physically or cognitively unable to choose one, the courts will have to step in.
Create a team
While there are plenty of important tasks that can be handled remotely, such as paying bills, ordering prescriptions and coordinating team members, you’ll still need others to be your eyes and ears when you’re caring from afar. It’s natural for long-distance caregivers to feel guilty about delegating certain jobs, but you simply cannot do it all, especially when trying to manage more serious or complicated health problems. Beyond medical professionals, it’s important to reach out to friends, family and community resources to form a larger network of caregiving helpmates. Ask what tasks team members are willing and able to do. A neighbor might be happy to cut the lawn, while another family member might volunteer to drive to doctor’s appointments.
Find a local coordinator
When caring from afar, it can be especially useful to have a local care manager who can supply local knowledge and help with caregiving logistics. One option is to hire a reputable professional, often called a geriatric care manager or eldercare navigator/coordinator. They can be especially valuable as objective mediators when family members disagree on care decisions and when you’re facing tough choices, such as whether it’s no longer safe for your loved one to live at home.
Many people who identify themselves as care managers are unqualified for such a crucial role, so verify credentials. Consider years of experience and professional certifications. Discuss what they can do and their areas of expertise. You can hire them for a few hours’ consultation to develop a care plan or they can manage nearly the whole kaboodle: from hiring and overseeing caregivers to taking on power of attorney for a loved one who is reluctant to designate a family member and may prefer a professional.
Stay in the loop
Establish regular ways to communicate with your local team and loved one, whether through various organization apps, group emails or social tools like FaceTime or Skype. If doctors don’t have the time or inclination to follow up with you after meeting with your loved one, you’ll need to be both assertive and creative to stay plugged in.
Stay clued in to doctors’ orders. The person you’re caring for might not remember everything important discussed during a doctor’s appointment. You might suggest taking a digital recorder so that you can listen later, or to bring a friend to take notes.
Make the most of visits
Nothing replaces an in-person visit. When you can manage one, come with a list of things you need to know or discuss. Try to stretch the visit so you can spend time with your loved one, but also are able to schedule key face-to-face appointments related to his well-being. Sitting down to chat with someone is far more personal and revealing than a phone call can ever be.