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Long-distance parents

By Barbralu Cohen

Earl and Linda spend every weekend out of town, either at her mother's in Arizona or his father's in Washington State. Both parents have chronic disease and need to move where they can get assistance, but neither wants to. The stress, the disruption, the mourning are profound.

More and more of us in midlife are finding ourselves taking care of our parents. Not all of us can afford the travel to be with them. As Pamela Stone writes, "As our parents grow older and become ill or are no longer able to fully care for themselves, children living at a distance are faced with pressing problems. Most can't travel back and forth to provide sufficient help. They probably feel guilty about that — or regretful. Some aren't familiar with the area's social services and have difficulty arranging assistance from a distant location."

Stone is the author of A Woman's Guide to Living Alone: 10 Ways to Survive Grief and Be Happy (Taylor Publishing, 2001). Her new book, Reaching Across the Miles: A Family's Guide to Long-Distance Caregiving, is soon to be published.

According to surveys by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), more than 22 million Americans juggle jobs and care for the elderly. The AARP also reports that long-term care is expected to double in the next 15 years. People over 85 are the fastest-growing population; their average caregiver is 46 years old. The number of relatives who live more than one hour away from loved ones is steadily increasing.

Creating a workable plan of action for caregivers requires organization and team effort. Stone says it takes several steps:

*Prepare before an emergency arises. For example, parents need to create legal documents like a will, trust or guardianship ahead of time. They should purchase long-term care insurance while they are in good health.

*Families must discuss important issues concerning aging parents.

*A strong financial plan must be in place before a serious illness strikes. The average caregiver spends $171 a month of out-of-pocket expenses, or, in total, approximately $1.5 billion per month for groceries, medications, home modifications, and the like, for their family members, says Stone.

Stone, quotes Mary Richards, a geriatric private-care manager in Seattle who says, "Three things are crucial for long-distance caregivers. "One, they need to take care of themselves. The first question I ask someone is, 'What are you doing for yourself?' Two, I suggest keeping a phone book and resource guide for the community where their relative lives right by their phone. Three, I say realize that not being close means a different kind of caring experience -- not bad or good, but different."

Find a local relative or caregiver and communicate with them at a set time on a regular basis. She says, Ask, 'Is Mom participating in activities? What material things does she need?' Say, 'The last three times I've called Dad he seemed down. Is something going on with him?'" Their close perspective may give you a more accurate picture of the situation than your phone conversations with your parent.

It's also important to ask. "Is there any thing I could do on my end to support you in caring for my mom?" That way, they know youíre part of the team. And you know it, too.

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