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Top Tips for Long-Distance Caregivers

By Motley Fool Staff – Sep 13, 2018 at 1:25AM

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When a parent or relative can’t take care of their own affairs anymore, the lion’s share of the work frequently falls on the ones living closest to them. But what if the nearest isn’t nearby?

For this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Robert Brokamp and Alison Southwick bring in an outside expert to discuss one of the more fraught and complex challenges that many of us will face as adults: becoming a primary caregiver for an aging loved one. It's a position that can sap your time, your energy, your emotions and your finances -- and that's when things are going normally. In addition to being a pro on the subject, their guest, the AARP's Amy Goyer, has traveled this path with multiple family members, and she has plenty of straightforward, actionable advice to share.

In this segment, she talks about the extra challenges of being a long-distance caregiver. In our highly mobile society, it's very possible no effective surrogate will be living anywhere near an elderly relative when they need more frequent assistance. But even if there is one, those who live farther away can't just delegate all the responsibility on the one who has proximity.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 4, 2018.

Robert Brokamp: I assume, especially at the start, the caregiving falls to the person who's basically geographically closest to the person who needs the care. What are some ways that people who are not close by can still help out and stay connected?

Amy Goyer: Long-distance caregiving is a big question, and as I mentioned, the costs are higher for long-distance caregivers. They tend to be. And that's probably because first they're spending money on plane tickets or driving to get to visit; but they're also paying for services they might be providing themselves if they live nearby.

So you could be in a situation like my dad was with his parents. He was 2,000 miles away and he was the only child. That's one way. It could be you're a long-distance caregiver and there are other people who aren't nearby, so you still need to find out what to do. It's not a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card. There's something that everyone can do.

My oldest sister, before she passed, was so ill so much of the time and she couldn't contribute money. She couldn't come and help. But I asked her to call Mom and Dad every day. And she did, even though she didn't feel good at all. She called, and talked to them, and they loved that, and it gave us a break, and it helped give them quality of life, and she was contributing.

It might be that there are other things you can do. Often the person that lives at a distance does manage finances, because that's something where you can do so much online now. That might be a role that you can play. It might be that you do research online. Over the years I would ask my best friend, who lives here in the D.C. area, "Can you look up what I can do about this? This new diagnosis?" That's helpful. Somebody has to do it, so even if you're not right there, you can do that.

Other things you can do is when you do make a visit, you have to maximize it. When you go to your loved one's house, you need to assess the situation every time. Look for red flags. A lot of times what I tell people is if they see there's mail piling up, Mom and Dad might need some more help. They're not able to keep up with it, and that's a good clue that maybe they're not managing their finances because they're not opening the mail or there are unpaid bills. Or double-paid bills -- bills that, "Oh, I didn't pay that," when they paid it three times. So understanding what that situation is. You've got to look for those red flags. Is the house being taken care of?

Or personal care. That's a big one, actually. When you're not there with the person, it's sometimes hard to know that they're not taking a bath anymore, or they haven't changed their clothes in week. Little things like that which are clues to either cognitive changes, depression. Physical ability -- it's too hard to do the laundry. They have visual problems. They can't see. They don't realize their clothes are dirty. So checking on those things. And then meeting with the doctors and the aids and getting a good handle on things.

Do those things when you're there, but you have to have someone who's your eyes and ears on the ground if you're not there. If it's not another family member, then neighbors sometimes really help out a lot. Someone from a Faith Committee. The community. A volunteer.

There are also geriatric care managers. They're sometimes called "aging life specialists" or just care managers. They're people who will be you on the ground. Early on with my mom and dad, I would come back here. I would be gone, sometimes, for two weeks at a time. So I had someone who knew where everything was. If Mom or Dad had to go to the hospital, she could go right away until I could get there. That was like my backup. A lot of people are relying more on someone like that as our families are so mobile and we aren't there all the time.

And then the last thing is technology. It's huge. It's made a huge difference in long-distance caregiving because there's so much you can do, now, to stay in touch. To monitor medication. To keep the house safe. Video monitoring. Just all kinds of things you can do.

Brokamp: There are some more services that really facilitate the communication in a lot of ways with everyone. Like lots of Helping Hands. AARP has an app that does a lot of that.

Goyer: There's many apps. Technology has made a huge difference in caregiving, in general, whether you're long distance or not. The apps are great for care coordination. CaringBridge. Lots of Helping Hands. CareZone. There's a lot of apps that play different roles. But then also just using apps. I use Evernote a lot. I use Dropbox. The apps that I have used the most are the ones I use in all the areas of my life. I have a to-do list app I use. I have all of those.

For example, in my Evernote I have a copy of the power of attorney and all the documents because it's quicker for me to access than having to get my computer. And so people are finding different ways to incorporate caregiving into the apps and things that they're using. But the nice thing about the caregiving apps is it puts it all in one place. You can have shared to-do lists, and task lists, and you can assign things to people. You can have a shared calendar and really keep track of what's going on in the caregiving situation.

Brokamp: Any other final thoughts or final pieces of advice?

Goyer: Well, again, thinking about technology. Think about safety, too. My dad used to get out of bed, at night, to go to the bathroom and then he'd get lost in the house. So I got a floor mat that has an alarm. The minute he puts his feet on it, a little beepy thing would go off and I had an audio monitor in there that I could hear in my bedroom. I would know he was up, and then I could jump.

Then I got a video monitor and then I could really tell if he was just rolling over in bed or he was really going to get up. So investigate those things. I really think you have to embrace technology. There are people who say, "My loved one can't live at home anymore because they keep going out the door and I'm afraid they're going to get lost." Well, get an alarm on the door. They're inexpensive. There's a lot of different things that you can do.

And just really reach out. Caregiving can be very isolating, so it really helps to connect with other caregivers. AARP has an online community that you can get in 24/7. Whenever it's convenient for you. I'm in there a lot along with other experts. You can post questions and get feedback and that's just at And AARP also has a full family caregiving website. So you're going to find articles on everything we've talked about and more. I have a column. We have other expert columns. Finances. Health. Caring at home. Caring at a facility. All kinds of different things. And that's

We have a free publication that's a great place to start. It goes over those five basic things that I talked about when you're getting started with your situation and creating your plan and that's called "Prepare to Care." Again, Or you can call the toll-free number at 1-877-333-5885 and request a print copy of that publication.

And then, of course, I cover all this in my book, Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving in great depth. I have checklists, and tip sheets, and everything practical. I think that's the thing. Keep it practical, but look for the joy, and that's my final tip. For me, that's what got me through. Those joyful moments are what fill your time and keeps you going and I'd remember why I was doing this.

Looking back, now, I know that's what kept me going. I had t proactively create those moments of joy a lot of times, but also just notice the little things. My mom's smile when I'd tuck her in bed at night and singing with my dad. I have a lot of videos on my website of fun, silly, crazy stuff. That's what it's all about, right?

Brokamp: Right.

Goyer: It's all about the quality of life.

Alison Southwick has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Robert Brokamp, CFP has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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