Long-Distance Caregiving: 4 Ways to Stay in Touch from a Distance
Long-distance caregiving comes with a unique set of challenges, but it’s important for families to stay connected – no matter how many miles separate them. With technology and consistent communication, it’s possible to be intimately involved in your loved one’s care when he or she moves to assisted living or needs skilled nursing care.
“It’s really important for our population that families stay involved,” says Sarah Sjaaheim, Director of Social Services and Admissions at Eventide Senior Living Communities. “Nobody has to feel excluded because of distance.”
The National Institute on Aging defines a long-distance caregiver as anyone who lives an hour or more away from the person who needs assistance. These caregivers can take on any number of caregiving roles ranging from money management to clarifying insurance benefits to arranging care in a senior living community.
Here are some tips and tools for staying involved with your loved one’s care no matter where you live.
Even residents needing skilled nursing care are more tech savvy than ever, Sjaaheim says. Many residents are comfortable using smartphones and tablets, allowing families to keep in touch via video chat services like Facetime or Skype.
Family members might text back and forth throughout the day. These tools are valuable whether you live across town or across the country.
Technology also plays an important role when family members want to be part of healthcare decisions. Electronic medical records mean that, in some cases, family members can access test results and physician notes even before Eventide staff receive them, Sjaaheim says.
Even with technology available, families who want to stay close to loved ones shouldn’t dismiss the phone. Some families choose a regular time to call: for example, 7 each evening or 4 p.m. on Sundays. If staff know about this routine, they can help to make sure your loved one is available for the call, Sjaaheim says. If dementia has taken away a loved one’s ability to recognize family members by face, he or she may still be able to recognize and find comfort in familiar voices.
“If someone has regressed and is seeking you as a child or young adult, you won’t look familiar but your voice will be,” Sjaaheim says. Even a one-sided conversation can bring comfort to someone with memory loss.
The phone is also a great way to stay involved with care and daily activities. At Eventide, conference calls are a common way to keep out-of-state family members in the loop during quarterly care conferences. Everyone who wants to be involved can get up-to-date information about a relative’s health, progress and interest in activities. In between conferences, family members are encouraged to call the nursing station for information. These regular connections build trust between staff and family members, Sjaaheim says. It makes it easier to converse when a health crisis or decline happens.
Everybody loves to get mail. The message doesn’t need to be long; the touch point is what matters. Send a postcard from a place that your loved one once visited. Send a card with a sentence of two about something happening in your life. You could even mail a photo book or calendar filled with images from your loved one’s past. These photos can be of family members or past events.
“Anything that prompts dialogue or conversation is helpful,” Sjaaheim says. “Family is vital for bridging gaps and helping staff to understand what is important to an individual.”
Even with other options available, be sure to schedule in-person visits and to set priorities for those times. For example, do you want to accompany your mom to a medical appointment? Family members who don’t see a loved one regularly can provide helpful observations on how a loved one is adjusting and progressing. Sometimes it takes someone from out of town to notice decline, Sjaaheim says.
While much of the visit may be focused on caregiving duties, don’t forget to spend time relaxing and enjoying each others’ company. Above all, don’t let guilt for not being there every day get in the way of enjoying time with your loved one.
“If phone is the best we can do, you can still play a valuable role,” Sjaaheim says. “The important thing is that you stay involved. Time goes so quickly. Don’t waste it on guilt.”