Caregiving for a loved one in need is both a privilege and a blessing. It also comes with some significant emotional, physical, financial and logistical challenges. Assuming caregiver responsibilities from a distance often adds another layer of logistical and emotional complexity to an already complex situation. However, living far away does not make you any less of a caregiver. Your role as a long distance caregiver is just as significant. It will just look and feel differently than the primary caregiver’s role that involves more hands on, daily care. There are caregiver responsibilities you can do from afar that will contribute significantly to the care of your loved one. Never allow long distance guilt to interfere with the important contributions you can make from afar.
Long Distance Caregiving in the United States
According to the National Institute on Aging, you are considered to be a long distance caregiver if you live over one hour away from where your care recipient lives. According to the National Council on Aging in 2006, there are approximately 5-7 million long distance caregivers in the United States. That number is expected to double by 2020. On average, long distance caregivers live about 450 miles (or more) from their loved one receiving care (National Alliance for Caregiving and the MetLife Mature Market Institute. (2004). Miles Away: The MetLife Study of Long-Distance Caregiving).
Why is Long Distance Caregiving Important
Caregiving for someone you love takes a great deal of time, resources and coordination of efforts. Day to day, hands on care is often looked at as being the most time consuming and important. However, there are many details that take place behind the scenes that are often overlooked and unseen. These activities are just as critical in ensuring that care is continuous and effective.
Much of the time, caregiving is a 24/7 responsibility, depending on age and condition of the care recipient. Having an extensive support network is an incredible blessing. Unfortunately, so many people are not that fortunate to have a wide care support team to rely on. Caregiver burnout is a devastating reality. Sadly, the majority of the caregiving falls on the shoulders of one individual far too often.
To avoid caregiver burnout, sibling animosity and long distance caregiver guilt, here are effective ways to significantly contribute to the care of a loved one, even if you live far away.
What a Long Distance Caregiver CAN Do
Learn all you can about your loved one’s condition and care needs. Take time to speak with health care providers and on- site caregivers. It is important to know where you are starting and what needs exist before you can put a plan for continual care in place.
If you are not the primary caregiver, make it a priority to be in constant communication with whomever is. Fortunately, we live in a time where there are many different forms of communication that can help eliminate barriers to the exchange of information. Phone calls, text messaging, email and Facetime are just a few communication channels that can help you stay connected.
Communication is paramount to ensure the continuum of quality care. It can also be a “sensitive” topic when relatives, especially siblings, are involved. To ensure a team spirit, be sure to set expectations up front regarding communication. Be specific with the role you are committed to playing as a long distance caregiver. Caregiving should be a team effort. But, setting expectations and keeping all vested individuals informed is a critical component to quality caregiving. Effective communication can be a key component to safeguarding relationships, warding off potential bitterness, tension and animosity (especially with the ones you love).
Depending on your loved one’s condition, needs will vary. It will be important to assess what specific needs they have. Then, try to anticipate future needs and stay ahead of the preparation and planning. Remember to consider safety needs for their home (wheelchair ramp, grab bars, shower seat, etc.). In addition, find out what services may be necessary (such as in- home therapies, meals on wheels, or transportation).
When assuming caregiver responsibilities from a distance, it is essential to familiarize yourself with what support resources are available. Identify who is in your “circle of trust.” These people are committed to serving a role in your caregiving circle. This can include family, friends, neighbors, church members and clergy. Additionally, research local resources and services in your loved one’s community that may be able to assist in caring for your loved needs.
Caregiver Responsibilities You Can Assume from Afar
Assume Role as a Legal/Finances Manager:
As people age or illnesses progress, there is a lot of necessary paperwork to complete and locate. Know what documents exist or need to be created. It is important that someone, other than the person receiving care, know what exists. Additionally, take time to inquire about what arrangements are already in place for current and future care. When assuming caregiver responsibilities from a distance, this is a critical role in the continuum of care. This can be done well long distance. Money management, bill paying and legal issues are often least talked about. However, they are among some of the most important pieces of information necessary to make care arrangements for your loved ones. Offering financial support or assisting in paying bills, budgeting and acquiring/maintaining legal documents are among the most critical activities that a long distance caregiver can participate with.
Role as Care Coordinator/Scheduler:
Depending on what level of care your loved one needs, scheduling 24/7 physical care and accommodations can require a great deal of time, organization and effort. Schedule respite care for the primary caregiver to avoid caregiver burnout. In addition, transportation arrangements may be necessary for travel to and from doctor and treatment appointments, therapies and other care needs. Organized and detail oriented persons can easily slip into this role from a distance.
Role as Chief Communicator:
This role can be twofold. If I’m honest, it can be a full- time job. I know, because this is my role!
There are a great deal of care logistics that need to be communicated when a loved one is ill. Give information to your loved one’s medical team and other concerned caregivers and family members. However, there are also many individuals who genuinely love and care for your loved one. They are concerned about their care status and well-being. If you are a long distance caregiver, this is a role that will require a lot of time investment. But, it is also very gratifying. Be sure to gather a list of important contact names, phone numbers, email addresses, and addresses. Include medical professionals, family, friends, neighbors and church members. If you choose to fulfill this role, let them know how you plan to communicate with them and how often.
Role as Loved One:
Aside from serving in a logistical caregiving role, remember your first honor and responsibility is to love your care recipient. If you live at a distance, plan visits to spend quality time. Make making memories a priority with your loved one. Schedule visits in advance and make them a priority. Juggling long distance caregiving responsibilities with family and work obligations is not always easy. If visiting often is logistically or financially challenging, look for other ways to stay connected with your loved one.
Call often. Hearing your loved one’s voice and allowing them to hear yours can brighten a dark and challenging day.
Utilize technology. Facetime, videos and smart phones can’t eliminate the distance but it can help people not feel so far away!
Snail Mail. Yes, it still exists! Use it and use it often. Hand- written expressions of love are hard to beat!
Assuming Caregiver Responsibilities is a Gift
Taking on caregiver responsibilities from a distance is not an easy way of life. However, it is a valuable blessing in your loved one’s continuum of care. Even if you don’t live close enough to provide day to day care, your remote contributions are critical. Don’t allow long distance caregiving guilt to eat away at your spirit. Protect your precious bonds between you and your loved ones. Find ways to provide care and offer assistance from where you are right now.
Caregiving is a gift to your loved one and to yourself.