Supporting an Elderly Parent from a Distance

By Louisa Rogers 

“I have a secret to tell you,” my then 97-year-old father told me on the phone, in a conspiratorial whisper, “and you mustn’t tell anyone. I’m going to win half a million dollars tomorrow.”   I hoped my sigh wasn’t too obvious. Over the last year, my intelligent, worldly father had become vulnerable to sweepstake scams. As soon as he responded to one offer, more mail with seductive promises would arrive. No amount of reasoning on my sisters’ and my part would deter him. We finally controlled the volume by asking the receptionist at his assisted-living facility to set aside his junk mail until one of us could go through it when we visited. 

This was just one of many issues my two sisters and I have faced as we have supported our widowed father from a distance. We are not alone. Offering support to an elderly parent from another town or state is a common challenge in the U.S. Here are some insights we have gained to help the journey be less bumpy and stressful for everyone.

Be kind and patient. 
If your mom or dad has always been a competent, high-functioning person, they will probably be embarrassed to discover this is changing, and will not want to admit it to anyone, including themselves.

Practice clear communication with everyone. 
Part of what makes remote eldercare complicated is that so many players are involved: the parent, the adult children, other family members, medical providers, friends, neighbors, bank employees, lawyers, and the staff of the assisted-living facility. You’ll need healthy, clear communication with all these people.

Communicating with your parent. 
Communication and listening are a big part of helping a parent accept the changes that come with aging. It helps to be flexible, to keep experimenting with different forms of communication, seeing what works best and recognizing it may change.

Communicating with siblings. 
On the recommendation of several friends, a few years ago my sisters and I scheduled a family meeting during a weekend visit with our father to iron out who would be in charge of what. It was invaluable. 

We try to operate as a team, making sure we present a united front and updating each other on his status, especially after a significant phone call or visit.

Communicating with medical providers.
Unfortunately, medical providers do not all prioritize communication with family members! Now I call the nurse at his assisted-living facility after each appointment to get an update.

Communicating with banking staff.
As a parent ages, banking becomes more challenging. My sister, who is my father’s power of attorney, gradually took over his finances. He showed her his accounts, and for a time they worked together as a team.

Communicating with the staff of the assisted-living facility.
Within any facility, a range of people will provide support to residents, including the director, the health care director, the program director, the dining room servers, the nurses, and the Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), who help the residents shower, dress, and eat. We’ve found that the better we get to know the staff on a first-name basis, the easier it is for everyone.

Communicating with your parent’s family members and friends.
Since an elderly person will be healthier and happier if they maintain connections with family and friends, we update our father’s close contacts on how he is doing and encourage them to send cards and call him.

During important events, delegate one family member to be present.
Whether you live within a day’s drive or several airline flights away from your parent, you’ll need to be prepared to face many decisions, such as how long they should keep driving and living independently.

These are situations that every elderly person faces eventually, whether their children live in the area or not, but they’re more complicated if no adult child lives nearby. Our experience is that the more critical the situation, the more important it is to have at least one family member present.

Keep a sense of humor.
One of the most important things is to keep a sense of humor and look for moments of lightness—ideally with your parent, but if that’s not possible, certainly between the siblings.

Take heart.
Do your best and leave the rest. You can’t do it all; you have limited time and energy. Ask God to give you the strength to care for your parent without exhausting yourself.