Can Out-of-Town Caregivers Help Seniors Age at Home?

By Misty Kevech, HHQI RN Project Coordinator

helping handDo you know that there are over 10,000 people in the U.S. turning 65 today and every day for the next 19 years? Additionally, people are living longer. Currently there are about 50 million caregivers and that figure will double. There are about 34 million unpaid caregivers providing care to people that are over 18 years of age who has a disability or an illness (AARP, 2008).

Recently, the White House Conference on Aging addressed the needs and issues for caregivers and the elderly so people can age at home or safely in place. Caregiver needs include community service (e.g., food, housing, and transportation), health and caregiving education, and acknowledging seniors as humans and that they still offer a lot to our society.

Caregiving can include many different tasks or services and does not even need to be direct care.  The family unit is often geographically spread across the state or the country, so what can out-of-town caregivers really do? In reality, they can do a whole lot!

I am a caregiver for my dad who lives two hours away in another state.  When my mother died last fall, the plan was for my dad to move in with my husband and I. He resisted and wanted to stay in his home, even though there was not any local family support and he only had a few friends who had their own medical issues to worry about. As a nurse, I knew this would not work, but I gave in knowing that this plan would eventually fail and then he would move in with us. But guess what, I was wrong. For now, he is managing well in his own home with the support systems that we have set up and I coordinate virtually.

In my parent’s household, just like most, one person manages all the bills (my mom) and the other spouse (my dad) has no clue about paying utilities, taxes, insurances, etc. Much of the monthly management of household bills can be done virtually through online bill notifications and online banking. Teaching my dad how to use a debit card took some time, but with practice and encouraging him to ask for help at the supermarket he is able to do his shopping. Medication refills are easy to virtually manage and using pill boxes, calendars, cell phone alarms, and phone calls helps to keep my dad adherent with his medications, at least most of the time.

An agency provides housekeeping services to keep my dad independent and at home, but not all seniors or their families are able to pay for these services.  My dad can cook or heat up simple meals that I cook and freeze during my visits, or he can fix non-perishable simple items we stock for him. Simple phone calls to my dad assist him through the directions for cooking a new item, as well as a quick call from dad when he is at the supermarket and needs some advice on what dog treats to buy for his beloved dog. I visit about every three weeks or so to restock his cupboards, handle other non-virtual items, and to spend time visiting with my dad.

My dad’s story provides a few ideas on tasks that out-of-town caregivers can take on to assist keeping an elderly loved one at home or even to assist the other caregivers. Even if there is only one family member/caregiver that lives close to their loved one, there are definitely some tasks that out-of-town caregivers can take on.

As clinicians we need to ask, understand, and support the dynamics of caregiving for our patients. We need to identify caregiver needs, being innovative for unmet needs, reach out to the community for support from volunteers and services to assist the caregivers. Education needs can be related to health care or disease management, but also education on elder abuse protection. Elder abuse issues can be physical, psychological, and financial, and can be inflicted by family members or other people. It is important to provide information and educational resources on elder abuse to all family members.

What can you do to assist either the local or out-of-town caregivers to make a difference for a senior that wants to age at home?

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