Being a Long-Distance Caregiver
Experts say that when caring for an elderly parent who lives far away, the most important thing is to join a support group with people experiencing the same challenges.
Participating in a support group can give family members insight into caring for their faraway older loved ones.
Photo by Cathy Yeulet
You live here in the Bay Area. Mom and Dad, now in their 80s, live in Florida. Mom was just diagnosed with cancer and Dad has dementia. They need help, but you have a job, kids, and live across the country.
You want to help, but you can’t quit your life. What do you do?
“The biggest thing our clients feel is guilt—being so far away from their loved ones,” said Sheri Hartman, a licensed clinical social care worker at the Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay. “And the second biggest issue is traveling to see them.”
Of course, there are also other issues that adult children face in taking care of their elderly parents, many of whom live in different cities and different states.
How do you find out about all the resources if your parent lives far away? How do you find out about how to coordinate services if you don’t live there? What if you don’t even get along with Mom and Dad?
And these challenges are only getting more amplified: The number of adults taking care of aging parents has tripled in the past 15 years, and a full 25 percent of grown children—10 million—are helping their parents by providing either personal care or financial assistance, wrote Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein, an endocrinologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, in a Huffington Post column in 2013.
Hartman offers a few basic tips on how to be the caregiver to the parent who once cooked all your meals and schlepped you to music lessons: The most important, she said, is to join a support group. Her group, the Long-Distance Caregiver Support Group, meets the first and third Wednesday of every month at 5:15 p.m., at JFCS of the East Bay, at 2484 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. It’s $25 a meeting.
“People there know exactly what you’re going through,” Hartman said.
Group members can also provide logistical advice. Hartman said her group members are very sophisticated and can help others navigate complicated systems they’ve already figured out with their own parents. Participants guide each other with whom to call and where to go for help.
And while a support group isn’t therapy, per se, it sure is great to talk to people in the same situation.
“It’s not therapy, but it’s a place to laugh about the most horrible things,” said Anne Bookin, 63, who lives in Oakland’s Montclair district and is a longtime member of the group. Group members, many of whom became her very close friends, helped her get through the rough times of caring for parents who lived in Washington, D.C., and who ultimately died, and for her sister, who now has a brain tumor and is mentally ill. All three family members resisted her help, yet they all needed it. “It’s really a fine line to take care of the elderly and balance their respect and safety,” Bookin said. “Everyone else in the group knows what you’re going through.”
Many in the group also have challenging relationships with their loved ones, both Hartman and Bookin acknowledged, so the participants act as cheerleaders and active listeners when adult children need to vent about their aging, and often cranky, moms and dads.
Then, there’s probably the second-most important act adult children who live far away can do for their parents: If you have the money, finding a responsible caregiver is key, Hartman said. A competent caregiver will coordinate and connect your aging parents to vital services. They’re usually nurses and social workers and charge about $130 an hour in the Bay Area to $250 an hour in New York. “But they’re worth that money,” Hartman said.
A Google search for a caregiver will often yield several leads. But Hartman suggested using the nonprofit Aging Life Care Associates’ website: AgingLifeCare.org (formerly National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers). Input your parent’s ZIP code, and all the vetted care managers in that area will pop up.
One thing to note, adult children can also search for general senior centers, assisted-living care centers, home care for general help, and home health care for those with acute medical needs. Doctors can prescribe visiting nurses for patients with these needs, and those visits can be funded by Medicare.
Finally, these faraway helpers should be contacted by email and phone, Hartman said, and you should check their references and licensing board records — in each state, the agency is different.
Hartman knows this can all be a lot for an adult child, but the tasks can be manageable if done with support.
“There’s this overwhelming desire as children to be there for our parents,” she said. “But we always say you need to put your oxygen mask on first.”
The Long-Distance Caregiver Support Group meets the first and third Wednesday of every month at 5:15 p.m., at JFCS of the East Bay, at 2484 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. It’s $25 a meeting. Call Sheri Hartman, LCSW (LCS17212) at 510-693-0284 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the group.