More than 65 million Americans are caring for vulnerable loved ones, says AARP, and much of that care is delivered long-distance. Up until World War II it was common for both immediate and extended families to live under the same roof. However, by 1980, only 12% of American homes included grandparents. Today family members often live hundreds of miles apart.

Long-distance family caregiving comes with a unique set of challenges. Physically, financially, emotionally, and logistically, it’s impossible to be in two places at once. Adult children juggling work, who may be caring for their own children, have limited time and resources.  

However, with the right planning, adult children can prepare to provide their aging parents with the care they need. These 10 steps can help make it a little easier:

1. Gather your parents’ legal, financial, and medical information, this may include:

  • Birth certificates
  • Employment records
  • Bank and investment account locations
  • Monthly bills
  • Medical records and medications
  • Insurance policies
  • Online account passwords

Gather documents such as wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney, as well. Keep two copies of these materials—leave one set with your parents, and keep another for your own records. Alternatively, you can use a secure, “cloud-based” internet storage system so documents can be accessed electronically from anywhere.

2. Familiarize yourself with your parents’ insurance policies, investments, and health benefits.  Consumer surveys reveal that many people misunderstand who pays for long-term care services. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your parents’ insurance policies and other health and retirement benefits to understand who pays for the kind of care your parents will need in the long-term.  

3. Talk to your parents about their end-of-life plans: This conversation is especially important if you are caring from a distance. Find out how they would like to be cared for now and what care they want when they are no longer able to communicate their wishes or make decisions for themselves. Determine who will be the healthcare proxy. Ensure that they have a living will or durable power of attorney so that all family members are aware of and can respect their written decisions. Keep a copy of these documents in a secure and readily available place. Read our article on end-of-life planning for help starting this conversation.

4. Create a contact list of important people in your parents’ lives, include:

  • Physicians
  • Neighbors and friends
  • Local hospital and pharmacy
  • Clubs and organizations

Ask your parents to introduce you to a neighbor they would trust with a key to their home—someone you could call if they needed assistance. Build a relationship with this local contact and call occasionally to check on your parents’ wellness.

5. Investigate community and senior resources. Numerous studies show that social stimulation and physical activity enhance health, happiness, and longevity. Help your parents find a local senior center or YMCA, and discuss options for exercise or educational classes. Hobbies such as art lessons or even volunteer opportunities can enrich your parents’ post-retirement life. If your parents need transportation, use local contacts or home care agencies to secure a trusted provider and help schedule services for activities and errands.

6. When you visit, assess possible safety hazards in your parents’ home and make necessary modifications. According to the National Institutes of Health, six out of every 10 falls happen at home. Simple changes in your parents’ living areas can reduce this risk. Take some time to remove potential hazards.  Improve lighting and install handrails on stairs and grab bars in the bathroom. Rearrange furniture to keep pathways clear. Make items your parents use on a daily basis, like food and cleaning supplies, more easily accessible.  

7. Communicate often. Frequent visits may not be possible. However, today’s technology makes it easier to keep in touch. If they do not have them yet, get your parents a cellphone. Make sure they are easy to use and are preloaded with family numbers, emergency, and other helpful contacts. Teach your parents to use a video chatting application and schedule regular calls. These video calls can allow you to see each other, and help you detect any sign of physical problems. Ask questions that may reveal symptoms of illness or isolation. If other family members can visit, coordinate your schedules so you visit at alternate times.

8. Ensure your parents allow their physicians to share their medical information with you.  Ask your parents to grant you permission to inquire about the status of care directly with their physician or other health care providers. This will enable you to follow up should you have any specific concerns or questions regarding treatment or a plan of care. Arrange to be available by phone during your parents’ next appointment so you can remain informed about existing or newly diagnosed conditions. 

9. Consider home health care services from an accredited home care agency.  A home health professional can help your parents with activities of daily living. These activities may include the management of medications, meal preparation, light housekeeping, and transportation to medical appointments or companionship. A well-trained and thoroughly screened professional caregiver spending even a few hours a week with your parents can help them remain independent at home while supporting family caregivers with updates, providing peace of mind.

10. Find online resources for family caregiver support. Numerous organizations and websites offer advice, online communities, expert guidance, and information specifically for long distance caregivers. When caring from a distance, it can be helpful to know you are not alone. 

Caring for loved ones from a distance can be challenging and stressful at times. Keep the line of communication open with your loved ones and let the caregiving experience be a rewarding one.

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