Caring from a Distance

By Wendy Johnstone

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It’s 5:30 pm on a Monday and I’m interrupted from a Board Meeting by a colleague. She says, “It’s your brother from Toronto calling.”
The conversation is choppy. It’s Dad. He’s had a massive stroke. Don’t fly home. He was a candidate for surgery and is recovering in hospital.  He should be fine.
My brother repeats, “Don’t fly home... yet. I’ll call you tomorrow with an update.

As a long distance daughter concerned about my father’s care, I was at a unique disadvantage. I felt helpless, “out of the loop” and was struggling to understand the full extent of my father’s circumstances.  Telephone tag with health professionals, confidentiality obstacles and unfamiliarity with available resources in the community where I grew up, I found being a family caregiver incredibly challenging and frustrating from afar.

Many out-of-town family caregivers are taken aback to see how much the person they are caring for has declined mentally, physically or emotionally from visit to visit. Sometimes, aging parents forget what the doctor told them or they choose not to burden their families with their problems. Distance caregiving is quite the ride - guilt for not doing enough or for not being there, sadness in accepting the toll a disease can take, anxiety of frequent and unpredictable travel and fear of the unknown.

Caregiving can work across distances with key strategies, including:

Talk First, Act Later: before jumping in and getting too involved with researching available help, start with an evaluation of your aging loved one's situation. Collect information, either during a visit or over the phone. Find out what's been done by in-town family, friends and community health professionals. Talk about future care and housing options.

Learn everything you can about the disease or disability affecting the person for whom you are caring. This becomes the backbone of your care plan.

Build a Team that Works: find out who is in regular contact with the person being cared for and ask them to be part of the care team. Be clear, in advance, on what type of care and help is needed and assign everyone tasks best suited to their skills, availability and willingness.

Get to Know the Locals: research programs and supports available in the community. Patience and persistence are a must to navigate a health care system from afar.

Keep Everyone In the Loop: long-distance caregivers often feel left out of decisions or get information second hand. Finding a way to stay current and connected can help prevent family feuds and allow everyone to know and understand the options. Use an online calendar and task system such as Google Calendar or Tyze that your care team can access and receive updates.

Know Your Limits, Care Within It: it's easy to get absorbed in your role as family caregiver. Don't forget about your own life plan. Define the limits of what you are prepared and able to do. This will help you see more clearly what is needed and what is realistic for you to provide.

Next month: Sharing the care: Tips for Siblings when Caregiving




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