Elder Care: How to help from a distance
It's Sunday evening and I am getting ready for a another hectic week as a single, working mother. I've just finished folding laundry and have collapsed on the sofa, anxious to relax and enjoy a favorite TV show. The phone rings. It's my sister. I know she has been with Mom all evening and is likely calling to "vent". Do I pick up and listen sympathetically to another harrowing tale of dealing with Mom or do I settle in for some needed rest? Feelings of guilt win over and I take the call. Just as I thought, my sister is beyond frustrated with caring for my mother and in desperate need of emotional support and validation. Amy is single, has no kids and by default, has ended up shouldering most of the caregiving duties. Our mother is 80 and while mobile and generally in "ok" physical health, suffers from untreated depression, mild dementia, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. She's volatile, emotionally needy and believes that her daughters should meet all of her companionship, transportation and care needs. In short, she is simply exhausting to be around.
No wonder my sister feels trapped and fearful about what the future holds. She's young, energetic and wants a life of her own. Living 13 hours away, I can do little to assist with the care. I know that Amy resents having to do all of it on her own. How can I provide support from a distance? I began brainstorming and searching for ways I might help support my sister in her role as primary caregiver for our mother.
5 Ideas for Supporting a Sibling Caring for a Parent from a Distance:
1. Handle paperwork and make phone calls. I have assumed responsibility for handling "little things" that can quickly add up to a great deal of time and energy. For example, mom's home was recently damaged by a storm. On lunch breaks during the week, I made phone calls and lined up contractors to go out and quote the job. I then reviewed the estimates over the phone with mom so she could make the decision. With mom's authorization, I negotiated settlement with the insurance company.
I also call mom's doctor after appointments and stay up to date on her medical conditions. When my sister tells me about new or worsening symptoms, I connect with the physician for guidance so that Amy doesn't have to.
I serve as the designated "research person". Whenever we are confronted with a new issue or need a resource, I sit down and do the internet research for options. This can be a major time saver for the primary caregiver.
2. Help diffuse tension. When our mother is stressed about having to make a difficult decision, I step in and assist via phone. With mom's diminished cognitive skills, decision making can be very difficult for her and frustrating for my sister. Based on past experience, I know this is a trigger point for tension between the two. I spend the time on the phone, guiding mom through the decision making process and listening to her concerns. Because of my distance, I am able to remain calm and dispassionate which both parties appreciate.
3. Recognize efforts and show appreciation. Caregiving is a difficult job and often the rewards are few and far between. I have learned that expressions of sincere appreciation go a long way in sustaining a sibling who is handling most of the care responsibilities. For my sister, a gift certificate for a relaxing spa treatment like a massage or pedicure is very much appreciated. It gives her something nice to look forward to and lets her know I value that huge sacrifices she is making to care for our mom. Often, a simple note of thanks goes a long way in sustaining a weary caregiver.
4.Make arrangements for respite care. Out of town siblings simply must make the time to takeover for the primary caregiver on occasion. Besides, providing much needed respite, it's important to stay current on a parent's changing needs. The holidays are a great time to visit and relieve an overtaxed sibling. My sister isn't aware yet but I plan to surprise her by making arrangements to come up at Thanksgiving time and step in for her so that she can get away without worry. If personal circumstances prevent travel, consider making arrangements with a Professional Caregiver Agency to provide respite care. A small investment in giving a tired family the rest needed to sustain them as a caregiver is truly worthwhile.
5. Take the call. Whenever possible, be there to listen and offer emotional support to your sibling when she needs it. You may be the only person in the world who truly "gets it". I have found that just listening and validating emotions goes a long way. Often, my sister just needs me to hear what she is going through and to agree that she has the most world's most difficult job. After all, I am pretty sure that she does!
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