When you suddenly find yourself in a long-distance caregiving situation, you realize how much every mile of separation means. Every time I made that trip from Georgia to New Mexico as my parents’ health declined, I was reminded of the consequences of living so far apart.
My experience is not unusual; younger generations are more likely to be on the move and stray farther from their roots than their predecessors. The global economy and a competitive job market account for some of the trend, as does technology, which allows us to stay in touch with our loved ones from afar much easier than we could in the past.
So how do we address the distance gap? Here’s what would have helped my family caregiving situation.
I wish I had been more involved in my parents’ retirement plans. When they chose the small mountain resort town of Ruidoso, New Mexico, I thought it was somewhat of an odd choice, but lacked the foresight to think about the complications the location would pose as my parents aged. Born and raised in California, I went to college in Texas but was eager to explore post-college life in a big city, so I moved to Atlanta. My parents were eager to escape the high cost of living and joined a quarter of older Americans, who live in a small town or rural area, according to an Aging Today report.
It’s important for people in their 20s and 30s to stay in the loop with their parents’ retirement plans. In today’s economy, retirement isn’t always guaranteed, but older people often decide to downsize and move somewhere more affordable. My parents left the ample resources of a suburban community to move to a small town which offered a lower cost of living, but also offered limited healthcare resources.
Location became a major factor as my father developed Alzheimer’s and there were no local care centers equipped to handle dementia cases. Shortly after my father’s death, my mother fell ill, and by the time the small-town doctors figured it out, she required emergency surgery. What followed was a months-long recovery that required me to quit my job in Atlanta and move temporarily to New Mexico to care for her.
In hindsight, I would have encouraged my parents to move to an affordable suburb of a major city, which would have offered access to better healthcare options, and would have been easier for me to travel to more frequently.
A backup plan
My parents didn’t have a backup plan if things didn’t work out in Ruidoso. My father’s family was in Northern Ireland and my mother’s family was in Tennessee, and both sides were thinning as relatives died. They knew no one in New Mexico, nor did they have any strong connections back out in California. If I could go back in time, I would have better researched assisted living communities in the metro Atlanta area, though I’m not convinced my parents would have been willing to make the big move. But the lack of a plan when their health began to decline left us with few options.
Here’s what would have been on my wish list as a long-distance caregiver:
- Better transportation options: Aging in place is easier with reliable transportation options. Lyft has expanded into rural areas in 32 states, but consistent availability remains an issue. My parents were lucky in that the community they lived in had a local shuttle service, which is rare in rural areas. Still, a vast transportation gap remained. Medicare should cover medical transport services like Medicaid does. I had to scramble and pay a hefty out-of-pocket fee to secure private transportation for my mother who required a special medical test available over an hour away in Roswell.
- More robust home health services: If there had been better home health services to assist my mother while she cared for my father at home, she may have been able to keep him at home longer. When he ended up in the memory care center an hour-and-a-half away, it became difficult for her to visit on a regular basis because of the lack of transportation options. And if there had been better home hospice care for my mother, I may not have spent the last month of her life playing nurse, and instead would have spent that precious time as her daughter.
- Flexible employment options: Supportive employers who allow the option to work remotely is a godsend for long-distance family caregivers. I didn’t have that flexibility when my parents fell ill. By the time my mother was dying, I had secured a job with a remote work option, and that was such a weight off my shoulders.
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.