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Advice for Long-Distance Caregivers

Caregiving is never easy, but it can get even more difficult if the person you’re supporting lives far away. If you’re one of those long-distance caregivers, you’re far from alone.

According to the AARP’s 2015 report “Caregiving in the US,” seven percent of all caregivers live more than two hours away from their care recipients, and another four percent live between one and two hours away. The National Council on Aging estimates that between one-third and one-half of long-distance caregivers are someone’s primary or only caregiver.

Add to that recent events, like the Covid-19 pandemic, and we see how circumstances can make even nearby caregivers shift to protect the people they love. It’s very possible that now or someday in the future you’ll need to play the role of long-distance caregiver for someone you cannot see daily.

Long-distance caregiving is incredibly rewarding, but it also has emotional, logistical and financial challenges. You have to manage these challenges in addition to your day-to-day life, while also remembering to care for yourself and manage your stress. It’s difficult, but you can learn from those who have done it before. Here’s are seven pieces of advice that can help.

1. Get Organized

Long-distance caregiver visiting a relative.

When you’re a long-distance caregiver, you need to be extremely organized to ensure that both you, your relative or your friend has all the information and tools you need. A few of the things you may need to organize and keep on hand include:

  • A doctor’s visit packet that includes records of current prescriptions, recent test results, emergency contact details and a pen and paper for record-keeping during any in-person or telemedicine appointments. If you have someone else take your relative or friend to appointments, consider asking them to keep notes on a Google Doc or other shared file so you can view them.
  • An appointment planner with all your relative’s or friend’s obligations, including medical visits and things like church functions or family dinners. It’s helpful to have this online as well, though you may choose to have a wall-calendar copy that the care recipient can see easily.
  • A to-do calendar that you share with anyone else who performs caregiving tasks, including other relatives and friends as well as paid caregivers. Include regular cleaning tasks, meal prep and recurring errands. The more consistent you make the schedule, the better it will be for the care recipient and the easier it will be for your care partners to remember.
  • Two emergency document binders with all of the person’s important contact, medical, and legal information. Each binder should include everything someone might need to manage an emergency as well as short- or long-term hospitalization. Have one copy in your home and another in your relative’s or friend’s home where emergency response teams or other caregivers can get to it.

Many people have never kept detailed records like this for anyone, including themselves, so it can be a challenge to put together. Start with rough drafts of schedules and starter packets with important information, then update everything as necessary.

2. Gather Your Resources

Being a caregiver means knowing how to find the answer to any question that a medical, legal or social service professional might ask about your relative or friend. It also means knowing where every important document is, from power of attorney records to lists of medication.

Getting paperwork together is a long and involved process. Most caregivers find that it’s much easier when they approach the process as a collaboration with the person who is receiving care. Start by asking what they consider to be their most important papers. They’ll probably mention:

  • Birth, death and marriage certificates
  • Wills, trusts and advance directives like power of attorney
  • Insurance papers with policy numbers
  • Retirement account records
  • Records of mortgages and other debts
  • Property deeds
  • Financial account information, passwords and safe deposit box key locations
  • Pet care information

Some people are more comfortable with this process than others. You might find that your relative or friend is reluctant to share this information. Don’t be offended or take it as a lack of trust; the person might just be uncomfortable or fearful thinking about the prospect of emergency.

If a person is very private, they may be more comfortable working with an attorney to get papers in order. Just make sure that you know how to reach the person whom they choose.

3. Put an Emergency Plan in Place

As a long-distance caregiver, you need a framework on how to handle an emergency when you’re not around, including what other should do until you can get there to provide support.

First, if you’re the primary caregiver, make sure that you’re listed as an emergency contact in the person’s phone and with all of their regular health care providers. You’ll need to be able to make calls and explain where all important documents are kept.

As a long-distance caregiver, you’ll also need someone you can call who lives closer to your relative or friend. This should be someone who would be willing to meet the person at the hospital and relay phone calls to you until you can get there.

Having an emergency plan in place ensures that people who are nearby can act quickly and get in contact with you for more in-depth decisions. It helps safeguard your care recipient and can reduce your own burden, since you know a problem can be handled quickly even when you’re not around.

4. Manage Routine Tasks Remotely

Logistically, being a long-distance caregiver is easier than it used to be. You can manage so much of life online, from paying monthly bills to reviewing and renewing insurance coverage.

You can even do more long-term planning online, from scheduling your next visit to researching paid care services and pricing out senior living options. The best part of this type of planning is that you can send your ideas to other relatives and friends to get their take on things:

  • Would she enjoy this independent living or assisted living residence?
  • Have you ever been to this skilled nursing center?
  • Is this a reasonable price for in-home care where you live?

Eventually, bigger decisions will need in-person consideration, but there’s a lot you can do remotely to support the people you love.

5. Find Tools and Local Resources to Help

There explosion of apps and online tools is making remote caregiving much easier. Instead of handling everything manually, for instance, you can now use online scheduling apps and similar tools to help you arrange support for your relative or friend. Online tools can help with everything from arranging transportation to ensuring your relative or friend gets healthy, nutritious meals.

One example of a tool you can use is Meal Train, a popular scheduling tool designed for food coordination. The platform includes a Meal Train Plus service, which costs just $10 to set up and lets you coordinate meal deliveries as well as rides, visitors, pet care and anything else your care recipient might need. Friends, family and neighbors can sign up online for a task and you can view it from anywhere, so you’ll always know that the person has what they need.

If you’d prefer not to learn new software, don’t worry. Plenty of caregivers do this kind of coordination using basic spreadsheet tools like Google Sheets. Just arrange dates or days of the week on one axis and important tasks on the other. Then share the link and ask people to sign up for days and tasks they can handle.

6. Visit as Often as You Can

The more time you can spend visiting your relative or friend, the better. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to care for an immediate family member. If your relative or friend doesn’t fall into that category, check in with your employer to find out if remote work or a similar provision could help.

7. Make Good Use of Your Visits

As important as visiting is for a long-distance caregiver, it can also be stressful. You want to spend quality time with your friend or relative, but there are multiple logistics to handle at the same time.

To get everything done, it often helps to plan your visit before you go. Include:

  • Quality time with the person, doing things you both enjoy
  • Check-ins with local caregivers, friends and neighbors
  • Accompanying the person to any scheduled appointments or consultations where you need to be present
  • Downtime for yourself so you don’t burn out before you leave

During your visit, observe your relative or friend as they go about their day. Notice how well they’re able to perform activities of daily living like dressing, eating, and having conversations. Pay particular attention to issues of safety.

The day may come when you notice that your relative or friend is having a lot of trouble at home. You may not feel safe leaving them there alone. When that happens, try not to slip into guilt about being so far away. Instead, channel your energy into finding a safe place for them to live.

When Caregiving Means Finding a New Home

The logistics of finding a new place to live are difficult for anyone. When you’re a long-distance caregiver to an older relative or friend, it’s even more challenging.

Havenwood Heritage Heights provides a full continuum of care for just this reason. As a Concord continuing care retirement community, we have dedicated neighborhoods for independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care, and residents can move from one to the other if their needs change.

Maybe your relative or friend doesn’t need much help with activities of daily living but would benefit from a more active schedule with friends and neighbors who share their interests. They’d be an ideal candidate for our independent living setting. From there, they could move to assisted living or skilled nursing when the need arises, without your having to start from scratch.

Havenwood Heritage Heights’s memory care unit is also available if your relative or friend starts needing support for a memory impairment. Whether or not they’re already showing signs of dementia, such as the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease, it can help to know such a resource is available.

Most importantly, Havenwood Heritage Heights is a place where your relative or friend will be welcomed, celebrated, and respected. Each and every resident in our community is encouraged to live life to the fullest, and we renew that promise every day. When you can’t be there for your loved one in person, we’re there to treat them like our own family.

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