For my mother and my Aunt Lois, providing care to my elderly grandparents was a difficult and emotionally distressing experience for many reasons, but it was especially hard because of the geographical distance separating them. They both lived far from the southern Indiana farm where my beloved grandparents resided, and only one other aunt lived nearby.
Grandpa was the first to experience serious health issues and sank gradually into dementia. And though Grandma’s mind remained sharp until the end, her vision failed in her early 90s and she became homebound and frail, eventually succumbing to cancer. In the course of a decade, my mother and aunts managed the shifting stages of care for my grandparents. The heaviest burden of the day-to-day care fell on my Aunt Emily who lived nearby, while Mom and Aunt Lois visited often and helped with financial and legal matters. As distance caregivers, Mom and Aunt Lois often felt frustrated, constrained and helpless.
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The National Institute on Aging estimates that there may be as many as seven million people providing long-distance care in the United States. Caregiving for aging parents from afar iscomplicated. In addition to the emotional aspects that come with the aging process and deteriorating health of a loved one, the financial aspects can also be complex. If you are living far from your elderly parent and he or she is in decline, what can you do to make it easier financially for you and your family?
Consider moving Mom or Dad in with you. Depending on your parent’s desire to stay in their home or community, their health situation and the configuration of your house, moving them home may not be realistic. However, if your aging parent is open to the idea and can be accommodated in your home, it will likely beless expensive than carrying the costs of two houses or funding a room at anursing home. Discuss this with your parents and the other members of your household, and do the math to determine the cost differences and potential expenditures that would be required with this arrangement.
If your parent is going to remain in his or her home, help them make necessary changes to ensure a senior-friendly and safe environment. Falls or injuries can erode your parent’s health and might also contribute to expensive, preventable doctor visits. Determine what remodeling changes you might make and how to finance them.
Get the facts. Since you are far away, it’s important that you learn all you can about your parent’s circumstances and resources. Get organized so you can effectively manage the situation. Research your parents’ health issues, their prescription medications, insurance coverage and overall financial situation. It’s imperative that at least one family member has written permission to accessmedical and financial documents and accounts.
Be in touch – often. Talk to your loved one frequently to proactively manage health and financial issues. Gauge their energy level and talk to them about their day-to-day activities, overall health, expenses and bills. Be aware of any forgetfulness, confusion or signs of stress that may lead to mismanaged funds and vulnerability to scams or fraud. Set up conference calls with other family members, your parent’s medical professionals, in-home care workers, nursing home employees (if your parent is in a facility), accountant, financial advisor and attorneys.
Plan and budget for your travel. Unfortunately, phone conversations can only reveal so much. You may not be able to determine your parent’s real state of health unless you see him or her in person. The ability to visually scrutinize their physical condition, home and paperwork is critical for you to understand the reality of the situation. Trips are important, but travel can be expensive – whether you are a few hours away or across the country. While last-minute visits may occur, plan regular trips in advance and add accompanying expenses into your budget. This will help you manage your schedule and your finances. If you begin traveling frequently, you may need to make budget tradeoffs, but planning well in advance can help minimize the impacts on your overall financial situation.
Choose the appropriate primary caregiver and services. It’s crucial – if your parent lives at home or in an assisted living facility – to determine which family member will be their primary caregiver. If you have siblings, discuss and decide who will take the lead on the various aspects of physical and financial responsibilities. In some circumstances, these kinds of decisions can cause friction between siblings, so open communication and re-visiting your choices often is crucial. If your parent is at home, you may choose to find and hire a person to provide in-home care. Consider a home health aid or service, or a geriatric care manager. After a careful review of financial resources and long-term care policies, you’ll be able to determine how much your parent can afford and how much you and yourfamily members will need to contribute to make up any differences.
Learn about sources of financial help. Depending on their situation, your parent(s) may be eligible for sources of financialassistance. As a long-distance caregiver, you can research the types of aid available and help your parents apply. Start with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) (the federal agency responsible for Medicare), and SHIP – the State Health Insurance Counseling and Assistance Program, which provides counseling to families on Medicare and Medicaid. Also research other benefits your parent may be eligible for if he or she is a veteran.
De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.