Caring Across the Miles
July 25, 2004
BY ANGIE BRUNKOW, WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Ron Brentnall has driven the long stretch of Interstate 80 between Denver and Omaha more than 25 times in the last four years.
Each time, he locks up his Denver apartment and asks the neighbor to water his plants so he can come home and help care for his elderly father.
"I put the car on Interstate 80, turn on the cruise control and zone out," the 45-year-old banker said. "Sometimes, I don't even know where I'm at."
Like many people, Brentnall juggles responsibilities at home with caring for an elderly parent hundreds of miles away. It's a challenge that more and more Americans will face in this aging and increasingly mobile society.
"You've got people living longer. They're living longer, and they're living with chronic illnesses," said Gail Hunt, president of the National Alliance for Caregiving. "At the same time . . . people don't live in their little town where they grew up anymore."
An estimated 15 percent of caregivers live more than an hour away from their loved one, according to a 2004 survey conducted by the nonprofit caregiving coalition.
The resulting situation can be tough emotionally, financially and logistically. Some adults find themselves racking up phone bills and frequent-flier miles. They feel worried and guilty.
Many are juggling a full-time job and kids with caring for their parents.
They may have a hard time figuring out what's going on with mom and dad - even to the point of not realizing their parents aren't doing so well on their own anymore.
"You think mom and dad are doing fine and then you come home for the holidays and figure out things are falling apart," said Susan Murray, a social worker with the Geriatric Medicine Clinic at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
For Tammy Parsons, the worry started a couple of years back.
Her mom, who lives in Bellevue, had beaten cancer. But hip trouble was slowing the 70-year-old down.
"She couldn't get around anymore," said Parsons, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. "She has a very hard time walking, which is very scary when you're 1,400 miles away."
She and her mom lined up Meals on Wheels and hired a caregiver through Omaha-based Home Instead Senior Care for errands and light housework every few weeks.
Parsons, who has a hard time getting to Omaha often, feels like that's the best she can do for now.
"It's much easier if your mom is two miles away and you can go check on her every day," she said.
Hunt, of the National Alliance for Caregiving, said providing long-distance care can be a huge stress. Caregivers often tell her "they'll be there for Thanksgiving and try to set up services, and they come back to where they live and everything falls apart."
Guilt is a big issue, too.
"They feel like they're neglecting their job, neglecting their spouse, their kids, but when they're back at home, they feel like they're neglecting their parents," she said. "They're torn."
Some try to fix things by moving their parent closer, but Hunt says that can be bad if the parent doesn't want to move and already has a support system in place.
"Frustration makes you say, 'OK, that's it. I'm selling her house, and I'm bringing her here,'" Hunt said. "Pulling them out is not necessarily the best thing for them, though it could be very tempting."
Help is available for long-distance caregivers.
One option is hiring a geriatric care manager, who can provide an in-home assessment of what the parent needs at a cost that ranges from $300 to $800 nationally.
The care manager can connect families to services in the community and coordinate long term. A care manager can even serve as a neutral party to help the family divvy up responsibilities - avoiding fights among siblings.
Pamela Stone, a Dallas-based writer with an upcoming book about long-distance care, suggests that adult children tap into the usual and not-so-usual suspects to keep on top of a parent's well-being.
That means looking to your dad's bridge partner and the nosy neighbor as well as the doctor and housekeeper.
Mary Armbrust, who lives in Charleston, W.Va., with her husband, said knowing that her mother-in-law's Omaha friends will call them if something's not right takes some of the worry out of their long-distance relationship.
In the past, members of her mother-in-law's congregation have taken her to doctor's appointments and grocery shopping.
"They would take shifts and stay with her all night if necessary," Armbrust said.
And experts say high-tech gadgets are on the horizon that can help ease the worry of being so far away.
Some companies are developing Internet diaries, where everyone from dad to the friend who bumped into dad at church can log in with daily comments. Internet logs are being devised to track the time mom gets up, opens the fridge and turns on the stove.
For Brentnall, the Denver banker, the long-distance situation has meant frequent long drives. But he has enjoyed the extra time with his father in Omaha.
His sister, who lives in Omaha, took the lead in caring for their father for many years. Brentnall took over some of that role a few years ago when he took a break from his job to travel.
He's spent a lot of nights on the pull-out couch at Immanuel Trinity, an assisted-living facility in Papillion, to provide extra care for his dad. In January, one stay stretched into four or five weeks.
"I'd have supper at 4:30 just like everybody else," he joked.
Brentnall said he has enjoyed listening to his dad's World War II stories and taking drives. He hopes the care he has provided is as good as what his dad provided when he and his siblings were growing up.
Brentnall has taken more time off from work than he originally planned, and he knows he will have to get back on the career track soon.
But for now, he said, "I feel like I should be here."
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