If you are a long-distance caregiver, this may sound familiar. You call and call your care recipient and there’s no answer. “I hope something didn’t happen,” you say to yourself. Suddenly, you go into full alert mode, calling every five minutes. Perhaps you call your care recipient’s neighbors. Maybe you even call the police.
After all, you’re the caregiver, and you don’t want “anything bad” to happen on your watch. Quite often you learn a few hours later that Mom or Dad forgot to put their hearing aid in and didn’t hear the phone ringing. Or, they were out visiting a friend and “forgot” to mention it to you.
Over the years, I’ve learned through my meetings with hundreds of long-distance caregivers that there are some things that every long-distance caregiver learns “on the job.” This article is to help you up that “learning curve” to make your long-distance caregiving easier and less stressful.
Just because your care recipient goes “off the grid” for a few hours (or days) doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is lying injured or worse on the bathroom floor. The reality is that there are a multitude of reasons why someone might not answer the phone. If you can, have your care recipient agree to call you every day at the same time, no matter where he or she might be. That way, if you don’t get the call, you have a reasonable basis to worry.
If memory issues make that approach a challenge, consider enlisting a “friendly visitor” to stop in daily and send you a quick text or email that all is well. This person might be a friend, neighbor, volunteer, or even a paid caregiver or companion. Get the phone numbers of a few of your care recipient’s neighbors and call them when you fear something is amiss. They can go knock on the door or check the driveway for the car.
If you’re using a pair of surrogate eyes, be specific in your requests for help. Many long-distance caregivers make the mistake of requesting that someone “look in on Mom” and then are frustrated when that person doesn’t know the answer to a question. For example, wouldn’t it be better to ask the nice neighbor to stop by and say hi to your mom and check the refrigerator to see if there are fresh fruit and vegetables, and to then call or email you with their findings?
Or, how about asking your sister who is going to visit Dad to be sure to go through the mail with him and pull out any checks that need to be deposited? This will avoid the phone call where she tells you she had a great visit but had no idea that you wanted her to go through the mail.
Perhaps the most important lesson long-distance caregivers share is that communication is key. Caregivers must have open channels of communication with their care recipients whenever possible so that no one makes assumptions. Co-caregivers must communicate with one another to avoid duplication of effort or things falling through the cracks.
Whatever methods you use for communication, it’s a good idea to establish alternative channels in the event that the usual approach fails. This can be as simple as making sure you have a non-electric phone that plugs directly into a wall jack, one that will work even during a power outage, or setting up a phone tree to keep everyone with a “need to know” in the loop when information needs to be transmitted quickly and no electronic medium is available.
Finally, consider using a medical alert system such as Life Alert. There are several emergency response monitor systems and/or GPS devices available, but Life Alert is what I saw being used at Keiro Retirement Home when I recently visited during their open house.
Life Alert Emergency Response Inc. is a nationwide company, with headquarters in Encino, that provides services that help the elderly contact emergency services. The company’s system is based around a main unit and a small wireless help button that is worn on the user at all times.
Life Alert services can help seniors remain independent and possibly avoid a retirement home by sending help fast in the event of a fall, fire, CO gas poison, and home invasion emergencies. Senior health and longevity is as simple as a push of button, allowing independent seniors to live alone without ever being alone.
Life Alert’s method is simple. The person being monitored wears medical alert jewelry, such as a wrist band or neck pendant. The jewelry features an emergency or panic button that the wearer can push in the case of an emergency. The pendant then communicates with the console connected to the customer’s phone line, which contacts Life Alert’s monitoring center, which in turn contacts first responders or other emergency contacts.
To get quick assistance, the customer simply presses a button on the pendant. This activates the automated dialer and calls a company call center. The dialer then works as a speaker phone. At the other end is an emergency services dispatcher to alert the authorities to the customer’s predicament.
One long distance caregiver said, “I was notified each time my father’s Life Alert went off. I was also called several times during the process with information and keeping me informed. This was very important to me because my father lived in a different state and in a remote area. It was comforting knowing he was being well taken care off during his illness! Thank you.” (from Life Alert website)
Also from their website, this “Testimonial of the Day”: “I fell on the floor and I could not get up. I pressed my [Life Alert] button and 5 minutes later EMTs were there, got me up, and wanted to know if I was hurt. I will never be without Life Alert as long as I can pay for it. It’s a joy to wear and brings peace [of mind]. There is always help on the way to help.” — E.C., Brunswick, Ga.
A Life Alert technician professionally installs each system. This is a great feature for those with a family member living too far away to help. However, the company charges an activation fee for its service. There is no long-term contract required to use Life Alert, but a cancellation fee applies if you cancel without 30 days’ notice.
The core feature of the Life Alert medical alert system is the console that enables two-way communication with the company’s reputable monitoring center. The operational range between the console and pendant is 150 feet, making the system best suited for small homes. Life Alert provides either a necklace pendant or a pendant hidden in a standard men’s watch. A lifetime warranty is included on all products.
While Life Alert doesn’t offer popular additional monitoring products like a voice extender and lockbox, it does include a 911 phone (a phone that is exclusively designed to contact emergency services directly) as part of its monitoring repertoire. The Life Alert Mobile service allows you or your monitored loved ones to leave the confines of their home.
Finally, the best caregiving journey is one where you as the caregiver are able to keep your care recipient safe and as independent as possible within the reality of the situation. Remember, all you can do as a caregiver is your best. Part of that means remembering to make memories and help your care recipient live a life with meaning and purpose.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.