Color & Control:

Caring from Afar

By Rick Lauber

While it might be necessary to uproot seniors to ensure they get the proper care they need, both seniors and their families can suffer when there are large distances between them. Families often play a crucial role in a senior’s care and quality of life by sharing love, visiting and managing many caregiving responsibilities, and distance can compromise their ability to fulfill this role.

The consequences of distance

According to Mireille Vézina and Martin Turcotte in their Statistics Canada study “Caring for a Parent Who Lives Far Away: The Consequences,” little attention has been given to the question of how long-distance caregiving can affect a caregiver’s social and economic life. In a context where individuals and families are increasingly geographically dispersed, say the researchers, there a number of key questions: What proportion of caregivers live at least an hour by car from the parent to whom they are providing care? What socioeconomic differences are there between caregivers who live further from their parent and those who live closer? Do the types of support provided vary based on the distance between the caregiver and the assisted parent? And does living further away have negative effects on caregivers in financial, occupational, social and family terms?

Vézina and Turcotte ask some very valid questions and, in its “Portrait of Caregivers Report, 2012,” Statistics Canada has provided some answers. Addressing the traveling time required for visiting caregivers, the report explains that—at that time—one in 10 caregivers was spending at least 30 hours per week providing help. This included not only the actual time spent performing tasks but also the time needed to travel to provide care. Approximately three-quarters of caregivers said they did not live in the same household or building as the person they were caring for, meaning they had to travel to help their loved one. And while just over half said they had to travel for less than 30 minutes by car, around 12 percent of caregivers were helping a family member who lived at least an hour away.

Rather than directly providing care, caregivers who live at such distances more often serve as information gatherers and service coordinators. They need internet and telephone access, and often have to travel to meet with others involved in a senior’s care.

Traveling time required for visiting caregivers can certainly be a big obstacle to seeing a loved one as often as a person might like. Using the 200 km distance as a benchmark, that trip would require a couple of hours of driving—and remember to double that distance to allow for a round-trip. Back when my own parents were still alive, they retired from Edmonton to Victoria. When my two sisters and I visited, we chose to fly out to the island (a two-hour flight was preferable to a 14.5-hour drive). Fortunately, Mom and Dad had a two-bedroom senior’s condo, so a visiting child could bunk down for a couple of nights and avoid hotel costs on top of flights. And costs can quickly add up, especially when regularly filling a car with gas for a long road trip.

Lack of availability

Distant caregivers can suffer from such an arrangement. Family caregivers can feel a sense of uncertainty as to when they are actually needed and can find it difficult to find the right balance. Mounting guilt and feeling not completely involved with Mom or Dad’s care can also become issues. In my family’s case, we took turns being the primary caregiver for our parents’ immediate needs.

In addition, should there be a parental emergency, distant family caregivers are often unable to respond immediately.

Tips for caregiving at a distance

Search for local help: Many services can be researched online from a distance, in advance of a visit. Assemble a team and create a “caregiving binder” that lists local resources with complete contact information (company address, email, phone number, contact person). Include a few empty pages (and a spare pen) for ongoing notes from meetings and phone calls.

Look into short-term stay rooms at your parent’s long-term care home: Considering the greater geographical distance between generations, more and more long-term care homes are offering a room for visiting family members. Staying on-site will greatly reduce outside accommodation costs and allow you to better assess your loved one’s condition and care. Short-term stay rooms can be in high demand, though, so remember to book early.

Serve as a support for other family members. A child who is physically closer to Mom or Dad often becomes the default caregiver, without necessarily making an active choice to assume the role. These individuals can become stressed and overwhelmed by their situation, and feel that other family members could be doing more to help. If this is the case, offer to call, check in and—most importantly—listen. This can be just the ticket to calming things down.

Caregiving from a distance is not ideal and brings challenges. But don’t let geographical distance lead to emotional distance. If you can keep your aging loved ones close, your work can become much easier.

You can read Vézina and Turcotte’s full report here:

Rick Lauber is a published book author and freelance writer. He has written two books: Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians and The Successful Caregiver’s Guide (Self-Counsel Press).

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