Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Elder Care: Long-Distance Caregiving

One of the more difficult issues to manage when caring for an elderly person is knowing when there's been a paradigm shift in their mental or physical well-being that's significant enough to warrant action on your part. I've been ruminating about this quite a bit lately, in part because I've been overseas for two months. But also because, even when I'm at home, I'm 1500 miles away from where my mother is.

I rarely see my mother, yet I'm responsible for managing her care. How do I do this when I'm so far away? I can summarize the gist of what I do in the following list. I am aware that the frequency of what I do may seem lackadaisical to some, while others may find it more than they have time for. As you read this list, don't get stuck on how often I do something. Take the general types of actions and communication I'm suggesting and see if you can make it work for you in your own way.

Here we go:
  1. I work hard to open and then maintain channels of communication with the directors and staff at my mother's assisted living facility. They are my most immediate eyes and ears. I speak with them at minimum quarterly. In between I email them updates on anything of interest from my mother's doctors, so they know I value their attention to these things. If there's something that I deem of critical importance to me, I don't hesitate to pick up the phone and talk to them. I try not to leap to hyper-critical conclusions when something seems to go wrong (though this is hard sometimes!). The more I talk with the directors, the more I learn there are usually two or more valid sides to every issue. And the more they speak with me, the better sense they have of my involvement with my mother's care and what I need from them.
  2. I keep in touch with my mother's medical specialists. Although I've asked each of them to inform the Geriatric Specialist who's the overseer of my mother's health after any visit with my mother, I realize they don't always get to this. Instead, I get reports from the Care Manager who accompanies my mother to each doctor visit. If she hasn't been able to get a report from the doctor herself, I will call the physician's nurse and ask her to fill me in. Then, I circulate that information by email or fax to the other medical specialists myself. I've gotten only thank yous for doing this. Every doctor seems to appreciate having this extra information in their file.
  3. Every 4-6 weeks, I speak with my mother's two morning companions who take her on morning outings 5 days a week. When we talk I express to them how appreciative I am of their insights, even if they haven't told me much new. I also give them emotional support and kudos for their caring and attention to my mother's needs. And I offer suggestions of what they can do to handle whatever tricky situation(s) they may mention to me. I want them to know that I'm grateful for their loyalty. And I also want them to know that I'm aware of what they're doing, even though I'm far away.
  4. Lastly, and most importantly, my sister (who lives near my mother) and I continually reevaluate the role that each of us plays in supporting our mother. She regularly updates me on what she sees and what she's done during her frequent visits to my mother. I factor her assessments the setting of appointments, the follow-through that I ask of the assisted living staff, the information that my mother's companions need to know about her and more.
When managing an elderly person's care from afar, the key is building and nurturing a circle of communication. You might think that the most important word in that last sentence is "communication." It isn't. The most important word is "circle." Why? Well, think of a bicycle wheel. You're the hub. The spokes reach out from you to the significant others on the team, whose presence enables you to manage appropriately. And the wheel to which the spokes connect ensures that the information that's vital to everyone gets to them, not just to you. Without that potential to circulate, information is's just data. To transform information into actionable elements you have to help it get beyond you, to the others who need it. Doing so is what will make you more comfortable with your parent's well-being, even when you can't check on them yourself. And, as important, it'll give you options and resources to call on when an emergency arises.

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