It is hard enough to manage the care of an older adult loved one when they are nearby. Being at a distance — a situation that describes 15% of all caregiver relationships and that is estimated to increase significantly over the next few years — only compounds things in terms of both expense and emotional distress.
So, let’s look at five strategies and suggestions for making this as stress-free and successful as possible!
#1. Start Early
Please get involved now, before a crisis. This will ensure that you are prepared for what will inevitably come as they age.
Talk with them about your concerns, especially with being at a distance. Honor their desire for independence, but address what would happen if they became ill and/or had an injury that left them unable to care for themselves.
You want to help, which means you need their consent to put a structure in place that allows you to do that. Ask them for written permission to interact with their physicians and be sure that documentation is on file with each provider.
#2. Develop Provider Relationships
Here as well, you want to begin before a critical need occurs. Try to attend an upcoming physician appointment so you can meet the doctor(s) face-to-face and describe how interested and motivated you are to be a member of the support team. Let them know that you are only a phone call away and that you have a release form giving you permission to speak with them directly.
Another option is to attend appointments virtually, something that has become much easier since the pandemic. Some offices have a formal system that may include various technology platforms, but you can keep it simple by being on speakerphone or Facetime during the visit. Be sure to proactively let the provider know that you want to participate and that you have permission to be there. Then work with the office staff to make it happen.
For example, my dad had two cataract surgeries in the past month that required a lot of long-distance planning and participation on my part. He did not want to wait until May when he came back north, so we did the best we could, and all went well. I called into each appointment and was able to participate in reviewing his clinical status, detailed instructions for visits, post-surgery care, etc.
#3. Know Their Status
I am continually astonished by the number of people with older adult parents who tell me they know little about their parents’ health care status and/or who their health care team is.
This is problematic. As I have written about previously, it is essential that you have a complete, up-to-date, written list of a loved one’s medical conditions, medications, and care providers. When emergency personnel came to my home last December to care for my mom, I immediately retrieved my lists and it made communication much more effective. The EMT told me he wished everyone had such easily accessible information.
#4. Use the Patient Portals
Ask your parents’ permission to access patient portalsfor every provider they see. Figuring out the technology can be complex — there could be multiple portals, each with its own unique interface, username, and password — but don’t be deterred. It is doable!
Gaining entry to the portals will allow you to access information following visits you can’t attend, access lab results, and most importantly, proactively communicate with providers electronically (a phenomenally valuable and efficient tool when participating in a person’s care from afar).
#5. Ask for Help
Even though I manage the healthcare of clients for a living, my recent experience with my dad’s eye surgeries was more than I could handle from a distance. So, I hired some help. I sought the services of an Aging Life Care Manager who could be physically present, respond to immediate needs, and act as an extension of me. She has been instrumental in assisting my parents and providing me with peace of mind in the process.
Aging Life Care Managers are trained in Aging Life Care™, also known as geriatric care management. This is a holistic, client-centered approach to caring for older adults or others facing ongoing health challenges.
I frequently work with these professionals, so I was familiar with their industry and was able to identify someone through their national website (ironically, her name is also Dianne!). I interviewed her and we clicked right away. Fortunately, mom and dad agreed on the relationship, especially when I described how worried I was about not being able to physically be there.
What if My Parents Don’t Want Me There?
If attending an appointment is more than your parents want right now, call the physician practice and identify yourself as Mr. Smith’s daughter. Explain that you live far away but would like to open lines of communication with the physician to describe observations and share concerns. Be sure to then send the release form.
Request a pre-arranged phone appointment with the physician and offer to pay for their time. If the physician is not able to talk directly, ask if there is another key clinical person in the practice, such as a care/case manager, who might be familiar with your parents’ and their health. It could be a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant or social worker.
This is an important step as many physicians assume that the reason the children are not directly involved is because they just don’t care. One physician, for example, had major concerns about his patient (my client) and felt resentful about her daughter’s absence. He was reassured when I told him that her mom was not ready. He then asked my client if he could have her daughter virtually join in the next appointment. She agreed and it made a big difference in her future care.
Managing care for others is a complex process that requires a great deal of effort and tenacity. When there is distance involved, it becomes all the more challenging.
However, with the suggestions above, you can achieve a lot. Don’t give up!