SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By Winnie Yu
If you're looking out for a parent in declining health who continues to live alone, and who resides more than an hour's drive away, consider yourself a long-distance caregiver. It's a hard role to fill alone, but an informal network of eyes and ears can provide crucial aid. These supporters can be neighbors, friends, parishioners, even a mail carrier or the pizza delivery person.
Predictability can make it easier to keep track of a parent’s activities, and to tell quickly if something is wrong, says Carol Bradley Bursack, author of "Minding Our Elders" (McCleery and Sons, 2005). When you're on the scene, commit some time to following your parent's routines and seeing who they interact with daily or weekly. Identify and get to know those people, who could become part of your network.
If, for example, your mother goes to the bank every Monday morning, her regular teller may take notice if she doesn’t come in one day. Next time you have the opportunity, accompany your mother to the bank, meet the teller, and consider giving him or her your phone number. Your efforts shouldn't be a secret from your parent. "Explain that it’s for safety, and that they’re not intruding, just checking on her,” says Gail Hunt, president and cheif executive of the National Alliance for Caregiving in Bethesda, Md.
These strategies can help as well:
Find out who delivers to your parent. Anyone who makes regular deliveries to your parent, like a mail carrier, paperboy or supermarket carrier, is a potential source of help. If these people notice mail and newspapers piling up, or if no one answers the door, they can call you, or call for help. Similarly, those who provide services, like a maid or landscaper, can play a pivotal role in looking out for a loved one, along with people who are trained to notice signs of trouble, like visiting nurses or Meals on Wheels crews.
Consider the example of Jean Wilson, 82, of Memphis. For years, she had called in almost daily orders from her local Domino's pizza shop. Then, back in February, she took a fall in her home on a Saturday, and was unable to reach a phone to call for help. On Monday, when her regular order didn't come in for a third straight day, Domino's delivery person Susan Guy, who herself had experience as a family caregiver, went to Wilson's house to check on her. When Wilson didn't answer knocks on the door and window, Guy called 911. Rescue workers found Wilson and credited Guy with saving her life.
Enlist the community. When you visit your mom or dad, make a point of saying hello to their neighbors, advises Linda Rhodes, author of "The Essential Guide to Caring for Aging Parents" (Alpha, 2012). "Exchange phone numbers so you can call them if you become concerned about your parent, or so they can call you," she says. If you and your parent are comfortable with doing so, give a reliable neighbor a set of keys. Check in with your parent's house of worship as well. Many churches and synagogues now draw on volunteers who check in on elderly people in the community.
Take advantage of technology. For long-distance caregivers, technology can be a vital tool for keeping an eye on aging parents. One of the best options is a personal emergency response system, typically a push-button alarm worn as a necklace or bracelet. Your parent can set off the alarm if he or she falls, alerting a 24-hour call center to summon help. (Next Avenue recently wrote about the best of the new tracking technologies. Click here to learn more.)
You can also set up a monitoring system in your loved one’s home, using motion-sensor technology to track a parent's movements, and alert you to anything unusual. If no movement is detected for an extended period of time, the system will contact you or send an alert to your phone or computer. "Set it up in an area they spend a lot of time in, such as the kitchen, or wherever they take their meds," Bursack says. You can pay a company to keep an eye on your system, or arrange to do the monitoring yourself on your computer.
Regular phone calls can be a powerful tool as well. Rally your siblings and other relatives, and your parent's friends, to check in on your mom or dad through a weekly phone call, which also helps combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. You can even make a calendar of when you expect your parent to receive calls and from whom. If any of the callers come to have worries about your parent, or don't have their calls answered, they can call you — and you can do the same.
Do your part. Look around your own community or social or professional circles and see if an elderly person living alone might benefit from your help. Make it a point to drop by and offer help with raking, laundry or errands, all of which can be the beginning of an ongoing conversation. "Encourage a friendship, rather than acting like you want to be a caregiver," Bursack says. If you should build a relationship, discover how to reach out to the person's adult children in case of trouble, just as you'd want someone to do for you.
EARLIER ON HUFF/POST50:
Let The Person Speak
When an ill person brings up subjects that make you feel uncomfortable, it's natural to want to squelch the discussion or rapidly change the subject. However, it's very important to listen unselfishly and avoid responding with, for example: "Let's not get into that right now. Can't we discuss something more pleasant?" or "Do you really think it's helpful to dwell on this topic?"
Know When To Say "I Don't Know"
Whether the patient asks a spiritual or theological question that catches you off guard or she wants to know about the side effects of a medication, it helps to learn how to be noncommittal without seeming evasive. You don't want her to think that you don't care or that you're hiding something, and you definitely don't want to offer misinformation that might do more harm than good.
Don't Hesitate To Call In Spiritual Help
Even for people who weren't very spiritual or religious throughout most of their lives, it's natural to experience spiritual anxiety during a serious illness. And it's also natural for this anxiety to lead to questions that caregivers might find difficult or even overwhelming. If your loved one asks, for instance, 'What's next? Will prayer help? Why did God let this happen to me?' it's best to call in a qualified cleric.
Let The Tears Flow (The Patient's And Yours, Too)
Just as most of us are not comfortable with chronic illness, we are also not comfortable with crying. When tears appear, we tend to whip out a tissue and murmur something along the lines of, "It's okay. Don't cry." From now on, continue to pass the tissue when your ill loved one starts to tear up, but don't pressure him to stop sobbing. Tears are a natural emotional release for emotions ranging from anger to sadness to fear, and can be very therapeutic.
Resist The Urge To Spout Platitudes
When your loved one is uncomfortable, upset, or worried, you might be tempted to utter platitudes like, "Everything will be okay," "I know how you feel," "God has given you a long life," or "It's God's will." While we hope that these phrases will be a quick fix to problems we'd rather not deal with, the truth is that they're trite and meaningless. What's more, sugarcoating reality doesn't fool most people, and it certainly doesn't spark positive change.
Respond Constructively To Anger
Anger is a natural human emotion, and it's important to recognize that chronically ill people have a lot to potentially feel upset about. Understandably, many patients are angry that they are so sick. Plus, their pain and energy levels might make them less patient or less able to handle stressful situations. Therefore, it's not unusual for caregivers to be on the receiving end when their loved one's fuse blows for any reason.
Seek To Connect Heart To Heart
Understanding how and why an illness is getting worse and more painful is intellectual. But experiencing it is a very visceral and emotional thing. The patient needs for you to connect with him on a heart-to-heart, gut-to-gut level, not just a mental one.