Last Updated: June 1, 2010
Caring for an aging parent is difficult under any circumstances. But it is especially challenging, stressful, and costly for children whose parents live far away.
According to the National Council on Aging, nearly seven million Americans care for older relatives or friends who live at least an hour away, and on average are 300 miles away. A 2004 study by the Metlife Mature Market Institute found that long-distance caregivers spend an average of $392 a month out of their own pocket. Here are several tips from financial planning professionals on how to successfully bridge the distance at a reasonable cost.
Look for early signs. Aging parents in need of help at home commonly reveal signs in advance of a full-blown crisis — if their family and friends are alert to them. It may be physical signs such as falls at home or worsening arthritis, mental signs such as failing memory or garbled communication, unusual behavior such as slovenly personal care or changes in personality, or financial mismanagement such as unpaid bills or falling for financial scams.
Plan ahead. Put plans in place before a crisis arises that forces you to take rushed actions without an overall plan. Assess financial resources, clarify health care and transportation options, and make sure important legal documents such as powers of attorney and living wills are in place and you know where they are located. Sources for information on planning for long-distance care include www.caregiver.org/, www.aarp.org/ and www.agingwithdignity.org/.
Include the family. Hold a family meeting with your parents and siblings or other close loved ones who might be involved in their care. Discuss what the parents can and cannot do independently. Make plans and decide who will carry out the plans. For example, will one person be in charge of seeing that the right assistance is provided, while another provides financial support?
Identify the public and private agencies that can provide assistance. Start with the local agency on aging. They can give initial assessment help and provide sources for everything from in-home nursing care to Meals on Wheels to housecleaners. Also consider hiring a geriatric care manager — a professional who can assess needs and arrange for services.
Have contact information. Gather the phone numbers and addresses of your parents' doctor(s), financial advisors, insurance agents, attorney, key neighbors, friends, the service that mows their yard and other people you may need to get in touch with yourself at some point.
Hire help. Understandably people are reluctant to give up the tasks they've always done themselves. But try to convince them that they'll be able to live at home that much longer if they hire people to mow their yard, clean their house, grocery shop and provide home maintenance.
Build a support network. Beyond professional assistance, try to build a network of friends and family to help. Are neighbors or friends able to check in daily to see that everything is OK? Does their church provide visits or perhaps even volunteers to run errands or take your parents to doctor's appointments?
Hire financial assistance and automate where possible. Automate income deposits and bill paying as much as possible. Hire a financial planner to provide overall guidance for financial decisions, including assessing financial resources (your own employer may provide assistance, for example). The planner may also do their taxes and bill paying, or refer you to reputable services.
Care for yourself. If you've ever flown with a child, you know that should oxygen masks ever be needed on the flight, you should put your mask on first and then the child's. You can't take care of them if you're incapacitated. The same principle applies to long-distance caregiving. It often involves frequent travel and constant worry. It can be physically and emotionally draining on the caregiver. If you don't take care of yourself first, you won't be able to help your parent. Try to exercise and get enough sleep, eat right, understand that you can't control or aren't responsible for everything, and take periodic breaks from caregiving.
Be prepared to adjust. Conditions may change, and new actions may be required. While at-home care may suffice for a while, a worsening of conditions may ultimately require that the person be moved to institutional care.