How to Help Your Elderly Parents When You Live Far Away

We’ve written often on this blog about the concerns that caregiver children have for their elderly parents, but that’s only one side of the story. Many families also have an adult child living far from home, and though the concerns of the long-distance child may be different from the one who lives down the street, they’re no less important. Here are some of the more common concerns we hear about in our office, and some suggestions for addressing them:

I worry that when I talk to my parents on the phone I’m not getting the whole truth about their health or situation. This is one of the most common concerns of long-distance children. The best thing to do is be up front with your parents. Tell them that you want—and need—to know the truth, even if they think it will worry you. If you still don’t think they’re being completely honest, enlist the help of a sibling or nearby friend or neighbor who can be your eyes and ears. You can also ask your parents to sign a waiver with their doctor giving him or her permission to share their medical details with you.

I’m afraid that my mom is losing the ability to manage her money and could end up broke. Seniors are the most common victims of financial fraud, and it’s hard to keep tabs on mom or dad if you live far away. The best way to prevent financial fraud is to talk about money with your parents early and often. It may go against the grain, but discuss your own finances with them if it will help them open up about theirs. Visit as often as you can and watch their mail for letters from promotion companies or shady looking “charities”; and put your parent’s phone number on the National Do Not Call registry (1.888.382.1222 or www.donotcall.gov)

I feel guilty that my sister (who lives in the same town as my parents) is shouldering the bulk of the burden. The sibling who lives closest does often end up being the physical caretaker of elderly parents, but that doesn’t mean those who live far away can’t help. The most common contribution from long-distance children is financial support—and that’s no small thing! Offer to pay for a housekeeper, in-home care assistant, taxi service, etc. And don’t forget to talk to your sister about what she needs. Helping your caregiver sibling is another way of helping your parents.

I love my parents; I want to do more to help than just give them money. A common complaint of seniors is loneliness and fear of being forgotten. One way to help your parent and help calm your own fears is to simply keep in touch. Make a point of calling your parent on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Send frequent cards or e-mails. Plan a family vacation that your elderly parent can be a part of. You can help your parents with your expertise as well; try to be involved in “the big stuff” such as meetings with estate planners, financial planners, nursing staff, or geriatric care managers. And most importantly, work regular trips to visit your mom or dad into the budget. There’s really no substitute for face-to-face communication.

I think that my siblings close to mom and dad are making the wrong decisions for them, or are pressuring them to make decisions they don’t really want to make. Undue influence is a serious accusation, and if you truly think your siblings may be threatening or manipulating your parent you should seek the help of a professional. Before you take irreversible action you need to have a private conversation with your parent; ask if they are being coerced and try to determine if fear is a factor. If you still think your parent is being manipulated against their will contact an elder law attorney immediately.

I don’t want to miss out on what could be my last moments with my parent. There’s just no way around it, your parents won’t be here forever, and nobody wants to feel that there were things left unsaid. If you truly worry that your parent is facing his or her last days the best advice we can give is to go visit if at all possible, and make your visit matter. Look through old photos, talk about your memories, and say the things that need to be said. If you can’t visit in person make phone calls or send letters. Don’t save your best sentiments for the eulogy—tell your parents how important they are to you today.

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