SIX THINGS LONG DISTANCE CAREGIVERS NEED TO KNOW
f you are a long-distance caregiver, you probably often feel like you’re in the dark. You call and call your care recipient and there’s no answer. You go to that darkest place – something must have happened. And then, if you’re like most of us, you go into full alert mode, calling every five minutes. Perhaps you call your care recipient’s neighbors. Maybe you even call the police. After all, you’re the caregiver, and you don’t want “anything bad” to happen on your watch. How often do you learn a few hours later that Mom or Dad were out visiting a friend and “forgot” to mention it to you?
Over the years, I’ve learned through my work with hundreds of long-distance caregivers that there are some things that it seems every long distance caregiver learns “on the job.” In an effort to help you up that learning curve faster, here’s my list of the top six things long distance caregivers need to know.
Silence isn’t always golden, but it’s not always a crisis either – Just because your care recipient goes “off the grid” for a few hours (or days) doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is lying injured or worse on the bathroom floor. While the media gets a hold of the horror story of the nice old lady whose dog dialed 911 when she collapsed, the reality is that there are a multitude of reasons why someone might not answer the phone. So, before this happens to you, put a plan in place. If you can, have your care recipient agree to call you every day at the same time, no matter where he or she might be. That way, if you don’t get the call, you have a reasonable basis to worry. If memory issues make that approach a challenge, consider enlisting a “friendly visitor” to stop in daily and send you a quick text or email that all is well. This person might be a friend, neighbor, volunteer, or even a paid caregiver or companion. Get the phone numbers of a few of your care recipient’s neighbors and call them when you fear something is amiss. They can go knock on the door or check the driveway for the car. Consider using an emergency response monitor and/or a GPS device. And finally, make sure you call the local police department (non-emergency number please) and find out how to request a well-being check for your loved one if it becomes absolutely necessary.
It’s not what you hear, it’s what you see – Long distance caregivers are familiar with hearing that everything is “fine” (or conversely, that it’s awful!) As with silence, you can’t always take what your care recipient tells you at face value. There is no substitute for making a visit and checking things out for yourself. Don’t forget to open the refrigerator and pantry and check for no food (or old food). Check for mail piled up unopened. Check for medication compliance. Look at whether repairs or maintenance are needed around the house. Talk to the neighbors. If you can’t make this visit, perhaps you can enlist another family member or friend to do so. Geriatric Care Managers are also a great resource for this type of assessment or well-being check-in.
What you see isn’t always what you get – Just because the home is neat and tidy and the fridge is full of good food doesn’t mean it always looks like this! Very often, care recipients don’t want to worry their caregivers or be a burden, so they are on “good behavior” in advance of and during a visit. They work hard to make things look like everything is fine, at least on the surface. If you suspect this might be the case, consider making an unannounced visit. In any event, it’s wise to open drawers and cupboards, check inside the medicine cabinet, and at least take a peek at the basement, attic or garage. You might find that your care recipient has literally swept the true state of affairs under the rug!
A go-to “owner’s manual” is the single most important resource – We have owner’s manuals for our cars and dishwashers – why not for ourselves? If you are a long-distance caregiver, the single most important resource you can have is an owner’s manual for your care recipient’s life. I call this a Life Transition Plan. Not only does it gather all of the important information in one place so you don’t have to search high and low when you need it, but it also forces you and your care recipient (and any other caregivers) to form a partnership and really talk about important issues before they become crises. If you are interested in learning what should be included in a Life Transition Plan, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to email you my free guide.
Be specific in your requests for help – Whether you are caregiving from near or far, it’s natural to become overwhelmed and frustrated. While a nearby caregiver can “show” someone else what they need done, a long-distance caregiver usually has to “tell”. Many long-distance caregivers make the mistake of requesting that someone “look in on Mom”, for example, and then are frustrated when they ask their surrogate eyes a question that person doesn’t know the answer to. Wouldn’t it be better to ask the nice neighbor to stop by and say hi to your Mom and check the refrigerator to see if there is fresh fruit and vegetables and to then call or email you with their findings? Or, how about asking your sister who is going to visit Dad to be sure to go through the mail with him and pull out any checks that need to be deposited. This will avoid the phone call where she tells you she had a great visit but has no idea that you wanted her to go through the mail.
Communication is key and you need backups planned well in advance of a crisis – The most important lesson long distance caregivers share with me is that striving for excellent communication solves many issues. Caregivers must have open channels of communication with their care recipients whenever possible so that no one makes assumptions. Co-caregivers must communicate with one another to avoid duplication of effort or things falling through the cracks. Caregivers must let their own loved ones know what’s going on with them, and when they are having a particularly difficult caregiving challenge, it’s helpful to be able to share it and get some input. Whatever methods you use for communication, it’s a good idea to establish alternative channels in the event that the usual approach fails. This can be as simple as making sure you have a non-electric phone that plugs directly into a wall jack and which will work even during a power outage to setting up a phone tree to keep everyone with a “need to know” in the loop when information needs to be transmitted quickly and no electronic medium is available.
While the above points apply nearly universally to long distance caregivers and are most acute for them when they aren’t employed, they really do make sense for all caregivers. The best care giving journey is one where you as the caregiver are able to keep your care recipient safe and as independent as possible within the reality of the situation, while at the same time, staying whole and healthy yourself. Remember, all you can do as a caregiver is your best. Part of that means remembering to make memories and help your care recipient to live a life with meaning and purpose.