When your Mom or Dad’s health is declining and they need more help, what should you be doing when you live in another state? This is a question that arises many times, in our society where your children are more likely to live in another state, as just down the road.
Perhaps the first thought is that, “They need to move closer to where you live.” Even if that may ultimately happen, its not usually the first step. Relocating may be the last thing your parents want and pushing that idea can cause them to reject any other more helpful ideas you may present.
Tips for caring for aging parents
Here are some ideas you may want to consider, depending on your and your parents’ situation.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Then communicate some more. Its something you can do when you’re not physically present with your parents, via telephone, email and even video conferencing. Don’t leave the conversation at the trivial. Talk about what’s happening in their life, and what they are experiencing with their own health and with their primary activities. Have they stopped going to the movies or other activities that they have typically done? Is Dad letting Mom drive now? Perhaps Mom has always loved to cook and bake but now has stopped those activities. Is your parent more likely to argue or seems distant? All of these are signs that there may be other health concerns, that could be memory or mobility issues. However, don’t criticize. Communicate and then work to understand what is going on. Don’t jump to conclusions, and don’t offer your own advice too freely.
- Talk about what would happen if there was a sudden accident and they needed care, or weren’t able to make their own decisions. Have they signed Powers of Attorney for health care and financial decision making? If so, were are the documents kept. Those two documents in particular should be shared with the children who are named as agents. It’s also a good idea for a copy of the Health Care Power of Attorney to be given to the primary physician for the office’s records. Find out where the original documents are kept for safekeeping. Your parents may not want to provide you with a copy of their Will or Trust (although many times that is a very appropriate thing to do). But in all situations you need to know where those documents are stored if they need to be retrieved. Another concern of course is that if Alzheimer’s or dementia is a problem, then often documents get lost or discarded as the person “straightens things up” or “puts them someplace new where they will be safer.”
- If your parent has always handled all of their own financial matters, now might be a good time to work with them to start trying out a financial advisor who could be a tremendous help in making sure that no one takes advantage of your parents, or who can make sure that there is an easier transition if your parents can no longer handle their own finances. For example, if there is a revocable living trust, the trust needs to be funded to allow the trust (and the trustee of the trust) to work properly. Even if your parents always kept their money at banks, it would make sense to move some of it to a financial advisor who would be able to assemble finances and keep an eye out for unusual requests. Again, it is not all unusual to see an older adult who has over the years started multiple accounts at various banks. Moving to simplify this in conjunction with a living trust makes handing off the baton easier when that time arrives.
- When you do visit with your folks, pay attention to the house. You may want to take steps to make the home safer, or to attend to needed maintenance that is being neglected. Security systems and automatic lighting can be helpful, although again for someone with memory problems that can be more difficult. You can find various home safety checklists online that can help with making the home safer.
- Suggest that you could visit the doctor with your parent if there have been some recent health concerns. Again, not all parents will agree to this and you should request your parent’s request.
- You can spend time with friends and neighbors, as well as with people who are in or around the home regularly such as the yard person, or the postal person. They can be part of your safety net too, to check in on your folks and to let you know if they are becoming concerned. If your parents worship regularly, making sure that the pastor or other congregation members know that you have concerns and that they have your contact information (phone number and email, as well as your address) in case they would like to contact you sometime.
- Make sure that there is someone who checks in regularly. A medical alert button is a good start because it does provide important backup for a parent in distress. But I’ve heard too many stories about a parent who has fallen and forgot (or refused) to use the button to call for help. A neighbor or other person should plan to check in each day to ensure that all is well. Sometimes neighbors even have signals for each other. For example, neighbors living across the street or next door could signal each other that they are fine by turning on a particular light or opening a particular blind or curtain. But if the planned signal doesn’t happen it means come over and check, because something may be wrong.
- You can even have a similar signal by making calls to your parents a regular part of your daily routine. If you are expected to call and they don’t answer, you have the right to be worried when you know they are expecting your call and didn’t tell you they would be gone. Alternatively, you could plan to have them call from where ever they are to leave a message on your phone even if you’re not home.
Make the time to be available
In all situations, it’s important to respect your parents but don’t worry in silence. Build bridges to talk to them, and make sure that they know you care. No one wants to look back and say, “If only I had done….”
In your list of activities, take time to write down the things that are important and that only you can do. That list is fairly short. It should include, being your parent’s child. Another item on your list is taking care of your own health. There may be a few more things on that list as well, such as being a parent to your children or being a husband or wife to your spouse.
That doesn’t mean that you need to drop all you are doing and go move closer to your parents, or to completely devote your life to bringing them into your home. Instead my point is, that among all the things that grab your attention daily, you need to give priority to the activities that require your personal time and attention because those activities are important and can’t be handed off to someone else.
As your parents age, be sure that you’ve taken steps you won’t later say, “If only I had done…”