Aging With Care: Caring for elderly parents over long distances

I had lunch with a friend recently. Bill shared his concerns about his 86-year-old mother who lives in Maryland. Bill lives here in Seattle.

The other day, Bill’s mother called him. She was in a panic. Without explanation, she told him that she had lost a third of her financial assets. Bill was perplexed. Being a financial planner, he knew the stock market hadn’t taken a dive. So then, what had happened? He was at a loss.

Long-distance issues with aging parents are never easy. For most, frequent travel is not an option. For Bill, who is working full time and has two young teens and aging in-laws living with him, it would be difficult.

Ten years ago, Bill’s mother and father made a wise decision to move into a continuing care community for people aged 55 and older. This type of senior community offers three segments of housing on the same campus -- independent living units, assisted living units, and nursing care.

Bill’s father had developed Parkinson’s disease. They knew he’d soon need assistance with daily living. That all worked out well. As his health declined, he had the care he needed. He passed away about five years ago.

Bill’s mom continues to live in a safe, supportive environment in the retirement community. Meals are prepared and served in an elegant dining room. Her apartment is cleaned regularly. Her clothing and linens are washed and her bed is made for her. She enjoys being social and interacting with fellow residents.

What went wrong?

Luckily, Bill has a brother in Maryland who lives near Mom. Between the brothers, they determined Mom was confused. She had forgotten that she receives two monthly statements from her investment firm. She received the first statement showing only a portion of her investments. She thought the remainder was missing.

This confusion was a first. As difficult as it was to acknowledge, Bill determined correctly that his mother was developing cognitive issues. She will need ongoing assistance with her personal finances.

The brothers talked. Between them they decided, because Bill is an experienced financial planner, he is better suited to assist Mom with her investments and bill paying.

Long-distance caring

I know it is hard to care for a parent when you’re hundreds and even thousands of miles away. This situation is very common in the U.S. I get calls all the time from distraught children encountering problems with aging parents. Very much like Bill’s situation, it’s typically a red flag issue that initiates the concerns and the resulting phone call.

Callers are looking for advice and assistance. They’re uncertain what to do.

The nice thing about in-home care agencies: they’re local and able to help. Agencies provide a wide variety of services – from bookkeeping to personal needs. Personal needs range from meal preparation to assistance with bathing; cleanliness of the home and transportation when needed. Caregivers can administer medications and care for wounds. Do your homework before hiring and make sure the agency is reputable.

Staying home

I often quote this statistic, but it is representative of across-the-board thinking among the aging: According to the National Council on Aging, 75 percent of aging adults intend to remain in their current home for the rest of their lives.

Over time, the definition of home evolves. Bill’s mom has been in her retirement community for ten years – a community that has become “home.” The space she lives in -- her apartment -- is where she feels comfortable and safe. This is the space where she enjoys independence.

With her sons’ assistance, Mom will remain independent… at least for the time being. If other issues arise -- either cognitive or physical -- then some sort of onsite assistance will most likely be required. When that occurs, Bill and his brother will need to put their heads together and figure out what the next stage of care looks like.

Even in a retirement community, outside caregivers can come in to render aid. Assistance for an hour or two a day might be enough to keep Mom living in her own apartment for a few more years; thus, providing her the relaxed, familiar, and comfort surroundings to which she is accustomed.

When transitioning from one level of care to the next, bring experts into the conversation. A social worker from the retirement community or an independent agency can lend expertise.

Elders merit living with as much independence as possible. They deserve to be respected and to live with dignity. It may take creativity and an unconventional approach but, as long as she is safe, keeping Mom independent is a worthy goal.

MARLA BECK is the founder and former-president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to