Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

How to look out for parents 3,000 miles away

It isn’t easy to care for an ailing parent who doesn’t live where you live. But with good planning and research, it is possible. Here are 6 key steps.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Trying to help a parent or other elderly relative from afar is a difficult experience that, at worst, can empty bank accounts, strain family relations and put the elderly person's health at risk.

Millions of American families face these issues, however, either because their parents moved to faraway retirement communities or because the adult children scattered across the country. Even relatively short distances can become a problem when children try to balance caregiving with their other responsibilities.

"People can have very demanding jobs or be raising children," said Phyllis Brostoff, a social worker and geriatric-care manager at Stowell Associates in Milwaukee. "There are a lot of factors that can make it difficult (to provide care)."

If you're faced with aiding a relative from a distance, elder-care experts say the following steps can help you meet the challenges.

Assess their needs

If your parent suffered an accident or has a serious health condition, some of her needs will be obvious, while others will be more subtle. Your mother may need rides to the doctor, for example, but she also may require help fixing meals or need a chance to get out of the house and socialize.

A healthier parent may not need day-to-day assistance, but could be struggling with issues he used to handle with ease, such as yard work or paying bills.

Making a checklist can help. Does your parent need:

  • Skilled medical help?

  • Help bathing, eating or getting dressed?

  • Rides to the doctor and other appointments?

  • Home modifications, such as a ramp or grab bars in the bathroom?

  • Help with household chores, including shopping, cooking and yard work?

  • Legal assistance, such as estate-planning documents?

  • Assistance with money matters, including paying bills?

  • Opportunities to socialize with other people?

Isolation can be a serious problem, particularly for elderly people who have been widowed, who are new to their communities or who have withdrawn from social activity because of illness or depression. That's why elder-law attorney Donna Bashaw of Laguna Hills, Calif., often recommends assisted-living facilities for her older clients.

"Everybody always says they want to stay in the home, but the advantage of assisted living is that people are around you and people are checking on you," Bashaw said. Many of her clients resist moving, "but most settle in just fine. In general, people wait too long (to make the change)."

Adult children also need to be on the lookout for signs of financial problems, elder-care experts say, since it doesn't take much for a relatively small problem to snowball.

Investigate resources

If you haven't looked into community resources for the elderly, you may be surprised at the variety of services available in many areas. From Meals on Wheels to adult day care, these programs can help long-distance caregivers arrange the help their parents need.

The U.S. Administration on Aging offers an Eldercare Locator that can help you find services near your parent. Some of the services are reserved for low-income people, while others, such as transportation help and free meals, have no income requirements.

Another possible resource: The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. This relatively new profession evaluates the needs of seniors, then sets up and monitors long-term-care arrangements. The cost ranges from $50 to $200 an hour, with initial evaluations typically running $250 to $500.

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Rally the troops

Not everyone can afford to hire help, of course. But you need people "on the ground" who can check in on your parent, offer them assistance and respond to any emergencies. This could include siblings who live nearby, neighbors, friends or clergy. Get phone numbers so you can contact them if your parents don't answer the phone or you need someone to do a visual check on your folks to make sure everything's OK.

You might consider other arrangements as well:

  • Can someone in your family move closer? One poster on the Your Money message board moved a widowed aunt into an apartment near the parents' home and paid her a small sum to look after the folks.

  • Can your parent move closer to you? Most elderly people "age in place" -- that is, they grow old and die in the area where they raised their children. But some are willing to uproot themselves to be closer to their kids, which could ease some of the caregiving issues.

  • Can you share duties with siblings or other family members? Typically, one adult child shoulders the bulk of the caregiving burden, either because he's physically the closest or because he's the one most trusted by the parent. But others can offer respite.

Some families rotate the chores of on-site caregiving to make sure the primary person gets a break. Federal law helps out: The Family Leave Medical Act allows most employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member with a serious medical condition.

Others do what they can from where they are.

Continued: Get the paperwork in order

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