If you live an hour or more away from a person who needs care, you can think of yourself as a long-distance caregiver. This kind of care can take many forms -- from helping with finances or money management to arranging for in-home care; from providing respite care for a primary caregiver to creating a plan in case of emergencies. Many long-distance caregivers act as information coordinators, helping aging parents understand the confusing maze of new needs, including home health aides, insurance benefits and claims, housing requirements, medications, and durable medical equipment.
The National Institute on Aging estimates that approximately 7 million Americans are long-distance caregivers. And while economic factors are forcing people to move away from their families and hometowns, lifespans are lengthening leaving many of the elderly without family caregivers nearby. Shifting demographics exacerbate the problem. Over the next four decades, the number of people 65 and older is expected to grow, while the number of people aged 20 to 64, those most responsible for care giving duties, will hold steady.
I recently read an article by Matt Sedensky entitled Elderly Parents: Caring for Aging Parents Long Distance in which he interviews Lynn Feinberg, a care giving expert at AARP. Though care giving is a major stress on anyone, distance can often magnify it, Feinberg said, and presents particular difficulty when it must be balanced with an inflexible job. “It’s a huge stress,” she said. “It can have enormous implications not only for someone’s quality of life, but also for someone’s job.”
Without question long distance care giving is a difficult task. It can certainly be a burden financially. As last surveyed, annual expenses incurred by long-distance caregivers averaged about $9,000, far more than caregivers who lived close to their loved one. Some caregivers had to cut back on work hours, take on debt of their own, and slash their personal spending in order to help another. Emotionally, people are left feeling as if they are split in two trying to maintain their family and work routines as they dash across country to deal with real and imagined emergencies. To say the least, it’s exhausting.
So what do people do when faced with the situation? Most long-distance caregivers create a patchwork of resources they rely on to manage the situation. They make sure to keep in touch on a daily basis via phones and video calls. Relatives or close friends living nearby are enlisted to check on the elderly family member to make sure all is ok. Local service providers and agencies are brought into the picture when any of the benefits they offer match the individual’s needs. And for those who can afford it, professionals are hired to handle many necessary tasks like grocery shopping, driving, cooking and bill paying.
There is no simple solution when trying to care for someone at a distance, but being proactive and investigating local resources to plan for those inevitable emergencies will certainly help reduce stress. Successful long distance caregivers set in place a network and establish routines that minimize the need for those rushed trips across country.