Lessons for long-distance caregivers

Caring for aging loved ones from a far? Here are some insights from those who have been there—and advice to ease the way.

It’s a labor of love, caring for aging parents and other elderly relatives. But when you find yourself in that role from hours—or even states—away, every challenge is amplified. “It’s much more difficult than it should be,” says Shelene Veyan, a Virginia resident who has been the primary caretaker for both of her Arizona-based parents for nearly a decade. Persistence is key, she says.

As you dive into paperwork, finances and more, keep these lessons in mind:

Don’t wait for a crisis to make a plan

When your parents or loved ones are getting on in years, it’s important to have a conversation about their wishes if they were to become incapacitated, and who would be their caregiver—even if it’s hard to do. “You also need to discuss how their care, if they need it, will be paid for,” says Shelly Eweka, Senior Director, Financial Planning Strategy at TIAA. “Hopefully the person has made provisions for this.” If they haven’t, that’s a great first conversation to have.

6 Million

Americans provide heathcare for someone who lives more than an hour away from their homes.

Source: National Alliance for Caregivers and AARP,  Caregiving in the US 2020

It’s also imperative that as the designated caregiver, you are aware of and have access to any financial accounts. From a distance, you’ll likely be handling these online, so be sure you have the authority to do so. This typically means having a power of attorney designation, or at least signatory authorization, so you can help them pay their bills if needed, as well as make larger financial decisions down the line.

Anticipate the red tape

A major hurdle to caring for any loved one, local or long-distance, is getting medical professionals to discuss their condition with you. Privacy laws make this nearly impossible unless you’ve been designated as their healthcare proxy. This authority will allow you to make healthcare decisions on your loved one’s behalf if they become incapacitated. The documents for this (as well as for power of attorney) are often created at the same time as a will and living will, so be sure to ask your loved one what is already in place. If they don’t exist, or the designee is no longer appropriate, discuss having new legal paperwork drawn up.

You can often find the basic forms on most states’ websites or on legal services websites. But these arrangements can get complicated quickly. “It’s helpful to work with an estate planning attorney, preferably one in the state where your loved ones reside, because there’s a lot to navigate, and they can tailor your plan to your specific family dynamic,” says Daniel Ruppel, a Financial Planning Strategist at TIAA.

Again, these are details to get in place when your loved one is well. They may never be needed, but if they are, doing so will take time. Remember, too, that a person must be of sound mind to sign legal documents. Veyan suggests keeping both printed and digital copies at the ready, in case a situation arises where you need to act quickly.

Enlist help from those in the know

If you’re struggling to keep up from afar, consider hiring an eldercare consultant or geriatric care manager. This person, often a social worker or nurse, can help decipher the massive amounts of information, assist in hiring local help and more. Keep in mind, however, that this is not a free service and may not be covered by insurance. The eldercare locator, a service provided by the U.S. Administration on Aging, is also a good resource.

Note that if your loved one is a veteran, they may be entitled to government health benefits, which, while valuable, can be tricky to navigate. “You really need an advocate,” says Jennifer Whelan, of New York, who cared for her Vermont-based grandfather from afar for five years. Whelan felt fortunate that her husband, also a veteran, knew the process. If you need assistance, the Department of Veterans Affairs can connect you with a local representative who can help.

Make vital local connections

You won’t be successful in caring for someone from afar unless you establish strong relationships with the people who are physically there with your loved one, be they relatives, close family friends or neighbors or healthcare providers. Meet with them in person when you are in town, rely on recommendations from others and be sure they know how to reach you. Whelan was in constant contact with the nurses providing round-the-clock care. “Every day it was something,” she says. “I was dealing with a lot of the drama by phone,” she says. Veyan even emailed the charge nurse a sign to put in her mother’s room, letting everyone know that she had dementia and they should call Veyan with any updates.

Ironically, while COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the healthcare system—with staffing shortages and burnout—it has made at least one aspect of the process somewhat easier, Veyan says, thanks to telehealth becoming an accepted norm. “The other day I was able to virtually join one of my dad’s doctor’s appointments, which has never happened before,” she says. “It’s a new standard of care.”

Take care of you

Finally, don’t neglect your own well-being—emotional, physical, or financial. You shouldn’t be going into debt to manage your loved one’s care, or you risk burdening those who will be caring for you one day. Like the old saying goes, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself, first.”

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This material is for informational or educational purposes only and does not constitute fiduciary investment advice under ERISA, a securities recommendation under all securities laws, or an insurance product recommendation under state insurance laws or regulations. This material does not take into account any specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Investment decisions should be made based on the investor’s own objectives and circumstances.

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Advisory services are provided by Advice & Planning Services, a division of TIAA-CREF Individual & Institutional Services, LLC, a registered investment adviser.