A helping hand can only reach so far

Thirteen hours on the road each and every weekend. A colleague of mine (and former caregiver) routinely drove this distance every weekend to visit her aging father. She would leave immediately after work on Friday and return home late Sunday night. Obviously, travelling took its toll, but she wanted to remain involved with her father’s care and was considerably restricted due to living far apart.

Families living apart are not uncommon. Adult children leave home and move to different towns or cities for career advancement, better educational prospects, a new relationship or personal choice. And parents can also move … my own mother and father chose to change addresses to a warmer and more scenic climate after retiring.

No matter who moves when and why, such relocations can cause havoc when a family member needs to provide adequate care for a parent. The distance apart can cause family caregivers to feel helpless; however, there is a great deal they can still do. It is important to note that long distance caregivers tend to help out more emotionally than physically — and this should never be discounted.

From my own personal experience as a caregiver, I can offer this advice:

Create a contact list: A family doctor, neighbours, members of the church congregation, a housekeeper … who are the people associating with your parent(s)? Remember to identify both regular and irregular contacts – even a hair stylist can tip you off if a parent has missed a couple of regular appointments. Notify these people and confirm their willingness to help you. Generate a list of these individuals with their names and contact information (home, business and cellular telephone numbers plus e-mail and street addresses).

If you want to go one step further, try colour-coding your contacts as to their ability to participate. This way, you’ll know with just a quick glance who you can call upon and when. Type up and save this list on a computer. Forward a copy of your list to all other family members. Print off a copy and place it in a prominent spot. (Being a visual person myself, I have always liked conspicuously attaching important documents to the refrigerator using magnets).

Involve contacts: Once you have your list of contacts, engage them. Ask a neighbour to keep an eye on your parent and call you if anything doesn’t seem right. Ask a fellow churchgoer to drop in to visit with your parent, take him/her out for a walk, socialize over a game of cards or help out with meal preparations. As the old saying goes, “One good turn deserves another”, so acknowledge and thank your contacts regularly. Mail them a handwritten card, give them a gift certificate to a favourite store, send them flowers or treat them to dinner out the next time you’re in town to visit. Your appreciation will not go unnoticed.

Hire local help: If finances allow, employ a local individual. Communicate with healthcare support businesses by telephone and arrange for staff to help your parent. Perhaps a nursing student from a local post-secondary college could cost-effectively work for you and gain industry experience at the same time? Maybe Mom/Dad would appreciate a housekeeper who can come in a couple of times per week? Be aware that professional caregiving service companies may not be able to provide the same worker each and every time. For consistency’s sake, you may prefer to hire someone privately. Advertise for help in the local newspaper and await responses. When you are in-town to visit, your part-time helper may be available to run occasional errands – thus freeing you up to spend more quality time with Mom/Dad.

Schedule caregiving visits: While you may be unable to make lengthy road trips each weekend to visit your parents, can you still check on them occasionally? By doing so, this will give you more peace-of-mind. If you can’t “bunk” at Mom/Dad’s place (I had to use a sleeping bag on the floor when I went to see my parents) and want to save money on a hotel stay, maybe a nearby senior’s facility has an extra room that you can stay in. Some facilities have been built to include a “guest room” which provides visiting family caregivers both comfort and ease of access to their loved ones. If an extended stay is required, check with local hotels to negotiate a better price or even consider renting a furnished apartment on a month-by-month basis.

Pre-schedule necessary appointments: When you do visit a parent, your time will be limited. Why take up the few days that you have on the phone, trying to set up appointments? There is nothing stopping you from calling your parent’s doctor or financial planner before you leave home and locking in a time and date to meet.

Appoint a family “primary caregiver”: My own family implemented this strategy and it worked very well while Mom and Dad were still living some distance away. Appoint one adult child as a “primary caregiver”; it is this person who will make the necessary trips and report back to other family. If doing this, rotate the duties amongst all willing family members, as it’s unfair to expect one person to continually drive or cover the costs to fly.

Assure that your vehicle is in good working order: Whether you’re driving each weekend or are called upon to travel on short notice, you’ll want your vehicle to be in good repair. Keep your gas tank filled up, make sure your spare tire is fully inflated and, if you haven’t had any service work done recently call on your neighbourhood mechanic. While I never advocate cell phone usage for the driver of a moving vehicle, a mobile phone is a handy tool to keep in your glove box. Keep it fully charged and ready to go for any long road trips. Also, always alert someone of your itinerary and pack along emergency supplies even for those routine caregiving trips.

Establish an emergency contingency fund: Put aside “rainy day” money to use if needed. Ensure you have enough saved to cover transportation and accommodation costs while you are away. As one can never truly budget for all emergencies (without knowing how much these will cost), be sure to “top up” this fund and save more than you anticipate.

Geographical distance can become an issue for family caregivers – but this doesn’t have to be the case. While you will not be able to physically help feed Mom or dress Dad in the morning, there are many other significant ways you can provide care.

Rick Lauber is the author of Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians available at national Chapter’s bookstores and on www.self-counsel.com/default/caregiver-s-guide-for-canadians.html. More info at www.caregiversguideforcanadians.com.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Dean Mitchell

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