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Signs That a Long-Distance Caregiver May Need to Visit More Often

By Deb HippAugust 16, 2018
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A long-distance caregiver can encounter many unique challenges caring for their parents or senior loved ones from a distance.

Learn more about long-distance caregiving and how to recognize the signs that you may need to visit loved ones more often.

Caring From a Distance

One of the first hints that Leslie Eckford’s parents’ health was declining came during a long-distance phone conversation with her sister. Lately, Eckford’s mom, a talented cook, was eating mainly high-sodium frozen meals despite a doctor’s orders to avoid salt. Eckford’s mother had always done the grocery shopping, but now her father was the one buying groceries. Why was Dad now responsible?

Eckford, who lives in Salt Lake City, had been regularly visiting her parents in Virginia a few times per year. Her sister, who lived nearby, kept an eye on their parents.

Her parents’ dietary changes had evolved slowly, first with the crock-pot and then frozen dinners, with Eckford’s sister growing gradually concerned.

For Eckford, an R.N., who didn’t see her parents on a daily basis, news of their poor diet was startling. Then, a couple months later, Eckford’s parents missed their flight to visit her.

Eckford’s father had always been the kind of person who liked to arrive early. Now, he played down the missed flight, joking that even though they were waiting at the gate, they hadn’t noticed the plane boarding while they chatted. On her next visit, Eckford noticed that her mother rarely left the house and wasn’t driving.

When she questioned her father about the changes in her mom’s behavior, he revealed that he’d taken her for cognitive tests due to memory concerns. As her parent’s need for some extra help became apparent, Eckford gently broached the idea of hiring some in-home care.

“They told me they didn’t need any help,” says Eckford. “Whenever I tried to talk with them about it, they’d change the subject.”

How a Long-Distance Caregiver Can Gather Information

As a long-distance caregiver, it’s difficult to assess a parent or senior loved one’s cognitive skills, mobility and overall well-being based on occasional visits and phone calls. Long-distance caregivers often encounter “information gaps,” says Jason Biddle, creator of The Helping Home, an informational website offering resources on aging in place, lifestyle and senior assistance benefits.

“Your loved one may not be sharing all the latest news due to feeling embarrassed or not wanting to be a burden,” says Biddle.

“Upping your number of visits can help you keep better tabs on your loved one and more quickly address health-related issues.”

While visiting, pay attention to “things that make you go ‘hm,’” says Eckford, co-author of “Aging With Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home” and co-owner of the caregiving blog Mindful Aging.

For example, you may wonder why Dad’s car isn’t parked in the usual spot. Why did Mom stop going to her weekly bridge game? What’s that odor in the kitchen? Sometimes, small changes can signify greater issues.

Signs That a Senior Loved One May Need Help

Watch for these signs that a long-distance caregiver might need to visit more often or gather more information from a senior loved one:

  1. Calls from friends and neighbors. If a neighbor tells you that your mom never wants to go out anymore, pay attention. “It’s easy to think that maybe they’re just having a bad day, but you need to look at the whole picture,” says Eckford.
  2. Changes in communication. Hearing from a loved one less often can signal that he or she is becoming more forgetful or hesitant to share news. Conversely, an increase in the number of calls can indicate that your loved one feels isolated. “Both a rise and drop in communication might mean you should have more face-to-face quality time, says Biddle.
  3. Cognitive red flags. If you notice that Mom is more confused on the phone or repeats the same story three times during a call, “Don’t just change the subject. Ask about it,” says Eckford.
  4. Dwindling stamina. While visiting, Eckford recommends doing an activity you did with your loved one last time, such as going out or taking a walk. “You’ll really notice if there’s a difference,” says Eckford.
  5. Out-of-character behavior. Has your loved one started skipping a favorite activity, become uncharacteristically negative or mishandled once-easy tasks?
  6. Piles of useful items in one place. Watch for what Eckford calls a “narrowing down” of living space where things such as clothing, kitchen utensils, snacks and toiletries all accumulate around a certain piece of furniture. That pile could signal depression, lack of energy or mobility problems.
  7. Poor housekeeping. If you’re seeing dishes piled in the sink or your dad’s prized lawn is suddenly overgrown, you may need to hire someone to help lighten the load.
  8. Shifting eating habits. A simple “What did you have for dinner tonight?” during a phone chat can reveal that Mom is eating ice cream for lunch or that Dad is picking up fast food because neither feels up to cooking.
  9. Using furniture for support. Is your loved one getting around a room by stopping to lean on chairs or tables? That’s a sign of mobility issues.

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When a Long-Distance Caregiver Should Reach Out for Help

After Eckford questioned her father about her mother’s issues, she learned that he had health problems of his own. Her dad disclosed that he had knee pain but was avoiding surgery, information that he’d kept from his daughters. Eckford knew it was time to bring in extra help and began visiting more frequently to assess her parent’s in-home care needs.

“This required many conversations with my very private parents,” says Eckford. “Over time, Eckford’s parents agreed to allow in-home care staff to help with bathing and dressing and some overnight care as well.

Eckford’s dad passed away in 2016, but her mom who has dementia still lives at home with a live-in caregiver. “She has a really good group of caregivers,” says Eckford, who still manages her mom’s caregiving from afar, visiting around four times a year.

Eckford is glad she noticed the little details that caught her attention early on.

“My parents would never have communicated the changes they were experiencing directly to me or asked me or my sister for help,” says Eckford.

“It never got easier talking to them about it, and they could get very annoyed at my persistence, but by increasing my visits and adding care where they needed it, I know that their quality of life was improved.”

Are you a long-distance caregiver? How often do you visit your parents or senior loved ones? What suggestions do you have for other caregivers caring from a distance? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.

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Deb Hipp