Are you a caregiver? Caregivers include not only the people who provide hands-on care, but also those who perform any of the tasks that an individual cannot complete independently. Often, the job of caregiving falls on the family member who lives closest to the one who needs care. Sometimes family tensions can develop toward those who live farther away and are perceived as unable to participate. Those who live farther away may develop feelings of guilt or anxiety when they want to provide assistance, but aren’t sure what they can do. The successful sharing of caregiving responsibilities between local and distant caregivers is possible, and can help reduce some of the stress of the primary caregiver.
The first step to long distance caregiving is an understanding of the individual’s situation and needs. Schedule a visit with the individual that spans several days, so that you can observe how the person makes decisions, solves problems, and completes daily tasks, as well as the roles of any other caregivers. There are many needs and malfunctions that can be covered-up for a couple of hours during a short visit, but the observation of overall daily functioning for a couple of days in a row may reveal significant differences from the verbal reports that an individual may provide. Speaking with other family members, neighbors, and friends about their observations of and communications with the individual can also help provide a more complete picture of reality. Researching the individual’s medical diagnoses and medications will promote an understanding of how chronic conditions and their treatments may impact the current and future level of functioning of an individual.
Is there someone who lives nearby and is already providing some assistance with care? Communicate with this caregiver and find out if additional help is needed or wanted, and what specific tasks are open for negotiation. Good intentions can create bad feelings, and misunderstandings can easily occur when assumptions are made about the caregiver or recipient of care by someone who desires to “help.”
What types of assistance can a long-distance caregiver contribute? Here are some suggestions:
- Emotional support for the recipient of care is valuable. A routine telephone call to the individual can help promote social engagement and a sense of connection despite physical distance.
- Emotional support for the caregiver is vital. Regular contact with the caregiver reinforces your interest in the situation and allows an opportunity for the caregiver to vent frustrations, share successes, and ask for assistance to problem-solve. Remember to express appreciation routinely and offer reassurance when needed.
- Avoid “second-guessing” the primary caregiver.
- Coordinate your visits so that you can attend medical appointments or so the primary caregiver can take time off for vacation or personal needs.
- Financial management is an activity that can be handled regardless of physical proximity. A long distance caregiver can arrange and monitor online bill payments, manage banking and insurance needs, complete tax returns, and more.
- Online research of medical issues, identification of local resources for the individual and caregiver, checking equipment needs, comparing costs for professional care (if needed), and investigating types and eligibility requirements of various public benefit programs are examples of assistance that may be helpful as a way to share caregiving tasks.
- Communication coordination also can be done from a distance. Are there numerous family members and friends who desire regular updates? Being the main point of contact can help prevent a primary caregiver from having to repeat the same information multiple times when a change in condition occurs.
The National Institute on Aging has numerous publications that contain valuable information for both local and long distance caregivers. Visit www.nia.nih.gov and click on “Health & Aging” and “Publications.” Whether you are just beginning or are a seasoned caregiver, the complexity of caregiving can be overwhelming. These free resources can help families understand the emotions and practical issues of caregiving, and begin to get organized. Now is an opportune time to think about these issues. As people gather together to celebrate the upcoming holidays, take advantage of this time to discuss current and future caregiving needs in your family, and reduce the chances of a caregiving crisis in the new year.
Karen Kaslow, RN