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Family & Relationships

Helping out from Afar? Follow These 5 Tips for Long-Distance Caregivers

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Caregivers can face a host of challenges – the emotional impact of watching a loved one decline, financial strain, stress, time management, burnout.

For one specific group of caregivers, known as long-distance caregivers, there are a couple of additional obstacles. They’re physically separated from their loved one, often by hundreds of miles, and they frequently struggle with a stigma or guilt that they’re not helping out enough because of that distance.

Amy Horowitz, Ph.D., has been researching issues related to long-distance caregiving, which is a relatively new phenomena, as people move away from friends and family for education, careers, and other reasons. Horowitz, who is a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, recently conducted a study, with the support of the National Institute on Aging, to better understand the experiences of long-distance caregivers. Through her research, which she’s in the process of analyzing, she found that distance caregivers are just as dedicated as those who are close by. “These are people who are very much involved, even though it’s from a distance,” she says. Because of that expanse, she adds, they often have to be creative in how they approach the ways they help out. Horowitz spoke with GetOld to share advice on how caregivers can be the most helpful to their loved ones – and to themselves – even if they live hundreds of miles away.

Make video calls to stay in touch. Horowitz says that one of the common concerns of long-distance caregivers is they can’t see if their loved one is declining. One simple way to combat that is video chatting. In her research, she was surprised at how few people were actually using this visual method of communication, either because they didn’t know how or didn’t have access. If you’re a long-distance caregiver who thinks this would be a good fit for you, explore the available technology or ask a friend for help in getting set up.

Ask local resources for help. They say it takes a village – and that doesn’t just apply to children. “Organize and round up every resource you can,” says Horowitz. When it comes to caring for an older person, there are many resources available, you just have to know where to find them. Horowitz suggests starting out by contacting your local agency on aging. They may be able to share advice or suggest non-profits and other services that fit your specific needs. If the options in the area seem limited, Horowitz says that families will often hire a neighbor who can check in and run errands from time to time. And when a family member needs more help, she recommends looking into options such as home health care and senior living facilities in the area, or contact a geriatric care manager, who can help organize on-site care.

Use technology to your advantage. There are many online services, today, that make it easier to help from afar. You can download an app to help organize everything you need to know about your loved one, including doctors’ appointments and healthcare contact information, medications, schedules, etc. In addition, you can use services such as ride shares to schedule transportation to the doctor, grocery services can deliver food, and many restaurants can deliver the occasional hot meal. Smart home services can help older adults do things using voice commands, such as turning on the lights and adjusting the heat. Medical alert systems, which contact response centers in the case of an emergency, can also give peace of mind to caregivers separated by distance.

Find support. Being a caregiver can feel isolating, no matter where you are. Horowitz says that it helps some people to find a “co-caregiver.” Perhaps, she says, one person handles finances, and the other handles emotional support. Also, she says, it could be useful to find a support group centered on distance caregiving. Whether it’s online or in your own community, this could be a great place to get new ideas, and it could serve as a reminder that you’re not alone.

Make the most of your visits. Whether you’re able to visit for a day or for four months at a time, find ways to make those encounters meaningful for both of you. In addition to running errands, doing chores, helping out with finances, and checking off all the other caregiver duties, reserve time for enjoyment. Horowitz says that a lot of people surveyed will go through old photo albums together, bring special meals over, take a walk, eat birthday cake, visit the beauty parlor, attend church services, or dine at a beloved restaurant. She says it’s important, both for the caregiver and the person being cared for, to continue making emotional connections.

In today’s increasingly mobile world, families frequently live far away from one another, and moving isn’t always an option. Like any kind of caregiving, distance caregiving can be difficult. But with the help of technology and a good support network, it’s something that may make the most sense for both parties involved.    

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