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Long Distance Caregiver: How to Prepare for Emergencies

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My Personal Story as a Long Distance Caregiver

Our team works with long-distance caregivers every day, so we have been through all kinds of situations that families needed to face from far away…from a middle-of-the-night hospitalization to the parent who is found lost on the highway. Even having worked with many families over the years, my personal experience as an expat caregiver really drove home the points we often shared with caregivers. I was living in Spain when my Mom broke the news that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that required immediate surgery.

Shock, tears, fear, and a frenzy of planning followed. Within a few hours I had to deal with changing flights on less-than-sympathetic airlines, figuring out if I could even make it prior to the surgery and how to rearrange various plans. Within a short space of time, my world (well, our world) was turned upside down and I found myself back home spending nights in the hospital while still adjusting to the time change. Fast forward a few years and thankfully (and mostly thanks to the great doctors at Johns Hopkins) my Mom is doing well, but living in China we’re even further away from our parents. I meet many expats who travel home frequently to take care of tasks for aging loved ones or do daily Skype calls to check up on things. Even those not actively involved in caregiving, like myself, can’t ignore the reality that we are far away from loved ones who might need us any time.

Long Distance Caregiver Tips and Resources

As a long-distance caregiver, you face special challenges. Not seeing your loved one on a regular basis can make it easy to miss things.  There’s added guilt at not being there and worries about what is happening. But, one of the most difficult things may be dealing with emergencies. There’s a feeling of panic when the phone rings at an odd time and the incredibly stressful reality of quickly arranging a trip when you just need to be there as soon as possible.

You can’t control emergencies, but there are some things you can do to better prepare, whether you’re caregiving now or may be called upon to do so in the future.

  • Know local resources. Who would you call when you get “the call” and what resources can help now? Reading blogs like Aging Wisely’s can help you be attuned to things that might help. You can do a little research through the local Area Agency on Aging and providers, and a consultation with a professional can help you understand which resources you might wish to access.
  • Establish a support system, especially people who can help in a crisis and be there until you can get there. I’m lucky to have a brother who lives near my parents, but neighbors, friends and trusted professionals can help too. If you are actively caregiving for parents who need help (whether they live at home or in a care facility), consider services like on-call geriatric care managers (for example, our team offers an annual plan which gives you access to our on-call care managers should an emergency occur, meaning your loved one doesn’t have to be alone in the E.R.).
  • Check in regularly. Some emergencies can actually be avoided by spotting signs that things are changing. Regular phone calls (or better yet, Skype or Facetime) are useful but also plan sufficient time when you visit to spend time together and observe things. Check out our Warning Signs handout.
  • You have to be even more prepared and organized when you’re living far away. Expats tend to be good at this. We had to figure out international health insurance, coordinate housing and schools in a foreign country, organize our records, deal with taxes long-distance and more. We need to use those skills to help our parents (P.S., It’s a good way to spark the conversation too–“I did it, let’s do it for you”). Organize medical records and advance directives, and store them securely online for easy access. Make sure someone local knows where/how to access them. Put all the important contacts into your system/phone. Use an online system to communicate with other family members. (We use a great system at Aging Wisely called ClearCare and each client gets his/her own “Family Room”. My family has also used Caring Bridge for keeping friends and family up-to-date on the person’s health journey.)
  • Don’t forget actual disaster preparedness. Check out our recent Disaster Preparedness post and our library of resources at EasyLiving. Go through a disaster checklist process on one of your visits.
  • Create a crisis plan. You might not know what will happen when, but you can work with your support system to create a plan for what to do if a crisis occurs. This goes back to who can get there immediately, as well as how you communicate with each other. Know who to contact at the airlines if you need to take an urgent flight (I’ve found certain airlines are much better than others and they tend to respond well on social media when you’re having trouble getting a good response with customer service). It’s easy to find information online even in the moment of crisis, but if you have a few things thought out ahead of time you can save the added stress.

This is just an overview to get you started, but stay tuned for more “long distance caregiver hacks”…resources and ideas that our team has found to be truly helpful. If you’re not already, sign up for our newsletter or join us on Facebook for the latest!

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