Did mom and dad settle down somewhere warm? Maybe you left home 20 years ago to pursue a career. Regardless of the events that led to you living away from your parents, you suddenly face the challenge of caring for them from a distance. Whether you are a two-hour drive or a short plane ride away, long distance caregiving is a difficult task for many (baby boomers) today.
Your role as son or daughter can turn into “long-distance caregiver” quite suddenly. Often times your senior citizen parents are happily retired and enjoying life. With a great sense of independence, they travel long distances to see the grandkids and can even manage to whack the golf ball. But then your dad has a stroke, and overnight, your parents’ lives demand all hands on deck.
At this point, it is important for all siblings to communicate and come up with a game plan, including mom and dad in the talks as much as possible. Constant communication is key, as you don’t know what issues will arise tomorrow, whether it’s health, financial, or family related. There are a number of decisions that need to be made, especially with regards to healthcare services. Since each family member is emotionally involved, it is important that all opinions are taken seriously.
When my grandfather had a stroke, he lost function on the right side of his body and much of his ability to speak. With 5 children scattered across the county, a group email was important in keeping everyone informed on Pop’s status. Most importantly, it was a way for everyone to put their heads together and make important decisions regarding Pop’s post-stroke care.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are two key caregiving functions to keep in mind: (1) information gatherer and (2) coordinator of services.
The easiest time to gather information is before a health issue arises. You should have your elder parents provide you with critical information, including important records, contact numbers and email addresses, and prescription information. Furthermore, you should have three legal documents: (1) a durable power of attorney for health care; (2) a medical record release authorization, giving all interested family members the ability to access medical records and talk to doctors; and (3) a durable power of attorney for asset management. This will allow family members to make important healthcare decisions on behalf of the patient. A living trust may also make sense for easy asset management. It is important that your parents meet with an attorney to prepare these documents before a health issue makes it impossible to do so.
The best way to prepare for long distance caregiving is to set up a care notebook, which consolidates all of your parents’ information. Whether it’s a 3-ring binder or a digital file, having this information in one place beforehand will make your life a lot easier. (The McKenzie Law Firm gives all of its clients a subscription to DocuBank, which provides doctors and anyone else that you authorize the ability to get a copy of your medical power of attorney anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day.)
Coordinator of services
It is also important for the long-distance caregiver to be the coordinator of services. This will involve contacting healthcare providers, scheduling appointments, and coordinating payments. When you plan the trip to see your parents, you need to schedule meetings with their current and potential healthcare providers. Speaking with their current healthcare provider can give you valuable information about the next steps. You should also coordinate with all family members traveling from long distances in order to space out your visits. While your parents would probably not mind if everyone came at once, it is more important that, to the extent possible, at least one person is always there for help and support.
For many, this will be the first time being involved in another’s healthcare decisions. It is complicated and stressful. It is important that you talk to someone with knowledge in the medical field that can explain health care eligibility and coverage options. There are different Medicare and Medicaid laws at work that you will have to follow in order to avoid an impossible medical bill. For example, it could mean moving your dad out of the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, followed by outpatient physical therapy. Every situation is different and open communication with family members and medical professionals will help you reach the best decisions.
You will have to balance the wishes of your parents versus the practicability of the care. Sometimes the parent in declining health will have a strong desire to go home, but it may not be feasible if they require assisted living. Maybe your mom thinks she can take care of your dad on her own; however, keep in mind her age, physical limitations and the amount of stress this will add to an already stressful situation. A social worker or geriatric care manager can help you devise a healthcare plan that works for everyone.
Hang in there
It can be quite overwhelming when you are naturally selected as the long distance caregiver overnight. Just know you are not alone. There are about 76 million baby boomers living in the U.S. today. Approximately 43 million Americans are managing the healthcare for a relative or friend over 50 years old.
Remember, the most practical course of action you can take is preparing a care notebook containing your parents’ important information and contacts. Also advise your parents to see an attorney to set up a durable power of attorney for (a) healthcare decisions and (b) asset management, and maybe a living trust. This will allow those who they trust, such as yourself, to make difficult healthcare decisions at a time when it is no longer possible for your parents to do so. Most importantly, work hard to keep all lines of communication open. Listen closely to the concerns of family members and educate yourself on caregiving options by speaking with medical professionals. It all works out through team effort.