According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), if you live more than an hour from a person who needs care, you are engaged in long distance caregiving. Long distance caregiving takes many forms. Some caregivers simply manage their loved one’s personal finances, while others tend to most aspects of care. This might include hiring an at-home aide; explaining health insurance and medical information; or coordinating long-term care plans.

If you are a long distance caregiver, here are some tips from the National Institute on Aging to help you navigate the process.

As a long distance caregiver, how will I know if my loved one needs help?

Your loved one may not reach out when he or she is having difficulty at home, so you may need to be creative to get the information you need. For example, calling around dinnertime with a casual, “So, what’s for dinner?” might give you more meaningful information about whether your loved one is eating healthy meals regularly and is meeting nutritional needs.

With your loved one’s permission, ask his or her neighbors and friends to check in periodically and encourage them to contact you if they notice anything unusual.

Try to plan an extended visit, such as on a weekend, with your loved one. You’ll learn more about his or her needs than during a shorter visit, which will help you prioritize your long distance caregiving tasks to provide your loved one with the most helpful assistance.

During long distance caregiving, what information should I collect and keep on hand?

Effective long distance caregiving relies on having a great deal of information at the ready, especially for emergencies. The NIA recommends you collect the following information for your loved one as a starting point:

  • Birth certificate, education, and military records if applicable
  • Social Security and Medicare numbers, including information about the type of health coverage your loved one has (e.g. Original Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicare Supplement coverage, prescription drug coverage, etc.)
  • Banking, investments, and credit card account information
  • Deeds, wills, durable power of attorney, and other legal documents
  • List of utility providers and account numbers, plus information about any other payments that are due each month
  • Most recent tax return
  • Location of any cash or valuables, including any safety deposit boxes

How can I help with my loved one’s medical care from long distance?

The NIA recommends learning everything you can about your loved one’s health condition(s) so you know what to look for and what questions to ask during your visit.

If possible, try to schedule a visit so you can accompany your loved one to a doctor appointment. Keep in mind you’ll need legal permission from your parent or loved one to discuss medical information with his or her doctor or insurance provider. For example, Medicare requires the beneficiary to sign an authorization form before it will release personal medical information to someone other than the enrollee. Make sure you have the proper paperwork filled out.

These tips will help you be a better advocate during doctor visits:

  • Write out a list of questions before the visit; bring a notebook to record what was said during the visit to help you remember.
  • Bring all medications and dietary supplements your loved one is taking on a daily basis, whether they were prescribed by the doctor you are visiting or another provider.
  • Encourage your loved one to answer the doctor’s questions; don’t offer your own answers unless you are asked directly.
  • Ask the doctor for help keeping you informed of your loved one’s condition; be sure the provider knows you are involved in long distance caregiving. Some doctors may agree to email or call you with medical updates; again, make sure that you and your loved one have signed any necessary authorization or privacy release forms so that you can better coordinate with the health-care team.
  • If there is a social worker on staff, ask for tips and suggestions for community resources to help your loved one.

Are there other tips for long distance caregiving?

The NIA suggests you keep the following things in mind in your long distance caregiving role:

  • Plan your visits before you go. Find out what your loved one needs and what he or she would like to do, and prioritize your time accordingly. Does she need new winter clothes? An appointment with the primary care doctor? Some time to visit friends or loved ones? Don’t forget to leave some unstructured time to just do things together and build your relationship.
  • Help your loved one stay in touch with you. For some families, that means getting your loved one a cell phone and teaching him or her how to use it. For others, it might mean using other technologies like video calls or email or text messaging. Remember, the more ways you can help your loved one communicate and touch base with you, the more opportunities you’ll have to learn if there’s something that needs your attention.
  • Schedule regular contact with your loved one’s health-care providers. Some families find that a conference call with all members of their loved one’s care team is the most efficient way to stay on top of any health issues and care needs.
  • Compile a list of resources in your loved one’s community that you can call on if you need help with long distance caregiving. The local Area Agency on Aging is often a good place to start.

Do you need more information about long distance caregiving and Medicare? I would love to help you understand your options for helping your loved one get the medical care he or she needs.

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