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Peace of Mind for Long-Distance Caregivers

Every Sunday, Donna placed a call from her home in Washington D.C. to her Aunt Catherine, to check up on her. At age 87, Catherine lived alone in her longtime Lower Manhattan apartment and, except for an attack of angina a couple years ago, was in relatively good health.

Donna asked, as she usually did, about her aunt’s weekend and was heartened to hear she had gotten out with friends. “My neighbor’s daughter took us to the Metropolitan Museum,” Catherine said, sounding uplifted.

Hoever, Donna’s relief turned to alarm a few weeks later when she asked again about Catherine’s weekend, and heardd virtually the same thing — verbatim. In her role as Catherine’s closest living relative because Catherine was widowed, with no children, Donna realized that those half-hour weekly phone calls were no longer enough of a check-in.

That next Sunday, she made the four-hour drive to New York and found her aunt in declining health. While Catherine recognized Donna instantly and joyfully, she looked terribly thin and wasn’t sure what day of the week it was. The refrigerator held little more than butter and cheese, and bread on the counter had molded.

Knowing how important it was for Catherine to stay in her beloved apartment, Donna decided to get help in providing care for her aunt, and she knew she would have to increase her participation as Catherine’s caregiver, even if it was from more than 200 miles away. Donna contacted our home health agency, Partners in Care, to assess his aunt’s situation and, if warranted, provide nurse and home health aide services.

Some 65.7 million American adults currently provide care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged, according to a study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. Most caregivers live near the loved one for whom they are caring. Indeed, proximity is often a major factor in deciding which sibling, for example, serves as the primary caregiver for an aging or infirm parent.

But Dennis is far from alone. The National Institute on Aging estimates that there are as many as 7 million Americans caring for a loved one from a distance of more than one hour away. As long-distance caregivers well know, the miles can add another layer of challenge to an already challenging responsibility.

Trying to Overcome Distance
Often, a long-distance caregiver relies on the telephone as the first and most frequent mode of communication. Vladimir Kotelnik, a nurse and geriatric case manager who works with elderly clients and family caregivers (both nearby and long-distance), suggests that long-distance caregivers listen hard for clues when talking to elderly relatives by phone. “Spend more time with them on the phone,” he suggests. “Listen for if they contradict themselves, or repeat something they said earlier. If you can use Skype, look for any changes in appearance or hygiene. Is their hair combed? Are they wearing the same clothes as last time you spoke?”