Dave Nickerson’s mother, Catherine, is almost 95, but he says she’s as independent and self-sufficient as ever. A former schoolteacher, Catherine has lived for 65 years in the same house where Dave grew up, near Boston. And she’s made it very clear she intends to stay there. “She’s embedded in the community,” Dave says.
Dave helped remodel the house a few years ago, so his mom’s living space is all on one floor. Supportive neighbors check in on her regularly. Dave oversees her medical care and manages the bills. He says he feels he’s on top of her situation, even with the one major complication that he deals with on a daily basis: He lives 1,800 miles away, in Houston. “I moved out of that house back in 1972,” says Dave, who is 65. “Now, I’m up there regularly. Her emotional well-being and health are tied into remaining in that home. I intend to support her in that manner for as long as I can.”
Caregiving for an elderly parent or relative is hard on anyone. But for the nation’s seven million long-distance caregivers, “there’s an extra layer of stress,” says John Schall, who heads the Caregiver Action Network, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. He’s a long-distance caregiver himself, too, for his mother in Livonia, Mich. He calls it “the worry factor”—you’re not there to see for yourself if the parent ate a good lunch, got out for a walk or took medicine correctly. You wake up in the middle of the night, anxious about missing something. “The not knowing is even a greater stress,” Schall says.
Around the holiday season, adult children sometimes realize a parent may need more help. Home for Thanksgiving, you might notice things are amiss. The refrigerator is nearly empty, or there’s expired food. The house is dirtier than usual. Unopened mail is piling up. “When you are visiting at the holidays, and maybe seeing some changes, it’s a perfect time to have some meaningful conversations, whether it’s with elderly parents, siblings or everyone together,” says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association, in Chicago. She recalls working with a family where a sibling set up a formal PowerPoint presentation after Thanksgiving dinner to plan for a parent’s care.
You don’t need to go that far. But if it’s time to step in, you should prepare for your new caregiving role. You’ll face financial challenges, from handling a parent’s bills to paying out of pocket for travel and costs for caregiving, which can average $12,000 a year, according to a recent AARP report. You’ll need to spiff up your organizational skills to get a parent’s medical and legal paperwork in order, and be ready to jump in as the advocate for his or her medical care. If you’re still working, you’ll pile these duties on top of your full-time job.
The good news is you can break down your caregiver role into stages, and use strategies that have been proven successful for each stage. Early on, for example, set up a network of friends and neighbors to help you keep tabs on your parent or loved one.
Worried about not being there with Mom at the doctor’s office? Think about hiring a geriatric care manager to accompany her and to oversee her prescriptions. Take advantage of technology to organize caregiving and keep in touch. As your responsibilities increase, seek support from local resources or online caregiver groups.