The reasons individuals and families choose (or are chosen for) an expat life are varied, as are their experiences. But, the expat life comes with certain commonalities. One of these is being separated from “home” and most of your family. This can be especially challenging (and guilt-ridden) when your parents or other loved ones have health issues. I shared a little insight from my personal expat life (and tips to be prepared) in the last post and today I’ll share some useful “caregiver hacks” for those living an expat life (and all long-distance caregivers) while trying to make sure things are okay back home for older family members.
Long-Distance Caregiver Hacks
What’s App, WeChat or even Facebook messenger can be quite useful when you’re living abroad to keep in communication with loved ones back home. These apps generally use small amounts of data (or you can limit usage to wifi) and provide an easy way to send quick messages to check in. For expats like myself in China, WeChat is ubiquitous and I asked my parents and some friends to add it to their phones so we can chat easily. With WeChat and many of these apps, you can do more than simple texting. We send pictures, video, “walkie talkie” (voice) messages and can even do a VOIP phone call within the app.
I highly recommend Skype, though there are other options and iOS users may be able to primarily use Facetime. However, Skype is great for the expat life for a couple reasons: you can get a dedicated phone number and you can get packages (or buy credit) to call phones. I have a $2.99/month package for unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada. It’s handy for me to call my bank, tax/financial professionals, etc. and can be great if you are helping coordinate care for a loved one to call doctors and more (and to call loved ones who don’t use Skype or Facetime).
I purchased a U.S. phone number on Skype also and pay a nominal fee for it. I ported my old cell phone number years ago to a Google Voice number and I can go into Google Voice and forward that to my Skype # or any other U.S. # (for example, when I return to the U.S. I have a local SIM card and therefore no one has to learn a new phone number to reach me). While this may sound a bit complicated, it is very easy to set up and makes things seamless. Google Voice allows you to get voicemail (which they’ll transcribe and send via email) and text messages.
With this setup, I am never out of reach no matter where I’m traveling (unless I’m asleep due to the time difference). Skype and Facetime are also great because being able to do video calls provides a feeling of closeness (and a useful visual check) you can’t get with just voice.
Being Organized On The Go
When you start off in the expat life, you’ll need to get yourself organized and it’s easy to extend this to working with aging parents to make sure they’ve done the same. Use our document locator list (adapted from the Foreign Service Worker Family Liaison office) to get together your (and your parents’) vital documents. Store these in a secure file and make copies of documents that might be needed by others. For example, we store copies with my in-laws and have the most important documents that we would potentially need with us as well. We keep our advance directives and documents we regularly need for visas, etc. but if we need something else they can scan and send it (or FedEx it if need be).
Store the documents and information you might need access to in secure cloud storage. Even simply having a copy of the basic info (doctors’ contact information and advance directives) on your phone or computer is useful (but please backup and ensure that passwords, financial info., etc. are stored securely).
Medical Record Portals
First, an electronic medical records/care system can be very useful if there are active medical needs (or even to be prepared with a full history and information should there be an emergency…pulling all that together on the spot is no fun). There are a lot of options available. Our EasyLiving/Aging Wisely team has used several systems over the years as they’ve evolved and we’re currently using ClearCare.
Second, most doctors’ offices now offer electronic patient portals, where patients can get their test results, message the doctor and more. Even if your loved one doesn’t want to use it, you can be permitted access if they allow. This can be a lifesaver when trying to help out from a distance.
Of course, I couldn’t leave out the value of care managers when you are caregiving from a distance. You can set up a phone/Skype consultation with a care manager in your parents’ area for help preparing and identifying critical issues. The care manager can carry out tasks so you don’t have to fill every visit with tasks, losing precious quality time with loved ones. You can also hire the care manager to check in regularly, attend doctor’s appointments and be on call for emergencies…all especially useful if there are no local family members.
- Plan longer visits. Jet lag is part of the expat life, but that alone makes it worth spending longer times when feasible (and with expensive flights or companies providing limited paid home visits, it’s best to take advantage of the time when you can). Don’t rush the time with your family members, as you will surely have tasks to complete along with observing how things are going and spending some much-needed time together.
- Try to get airline status (if possible, picking one primary airline and looking into which credit card and partner programs are worthwhile). When living overseas, having a preferred status makes travel a lot easier. I’ve never been to the level of getting business class upgrades on the overseas flights, but I do get to join the priority line, bring more luggage for free…and the reality is that the service level is better when you need help. I’ve never done it, but it is probably worth it to join programs like Global Entry as well (or check out the brand new Mobile Passport app, rolling out in various U.S. airports). There are other beneficial programs like the APEC business traveler card.
- When you need help from the airlines or travel companies, social media can be a useful tool. I’m not suggesting going on to Twitter to blast them, but many times the people charged with social media are more responsive than the general customer service staff, as they have the public image in mind. I’ve had good success reaching out (particularly via Twitter) when I’m running into difficulties.
Contact us for help with long-distance caregiving concerns. Our care management team is highly experienced helping caregivers all over the world and we’d love to share our insights and resources with you!