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Far Away Me: Caring for Parents at a Distance
I am a Tweener – I was born in 1962 so I am not a true Baby Boomer (according to some lists) and I am on the edge of the Baby Buster (Generation X) years. I have some lifestyle similarities with both groups but definitely claim the Gen X (more Buster than Boomerang) label more than the Boomers.
However, one thing I have in common with the Boomer generation is the fact that as Americans age, this generation is spending almost as many years caring for parents as they are raising children. This is not a new phenomenon in our country and raises many issues for both parents and their adult children - this group is often called the Sandwich generation.
More and more Boomers and Busters - and those in between, like me – are caring for aging parents. And many of us are doing that from a distance. Estimates say that as many as 7 million Americans are caring for parents from a distance. That is a lot of caregiving going on by proxy or by phone/internet/Skype/friends/etc. or by occasional visits. This does not mean our parents are incapable of caring for themselves – it is quite the contrary in my case. My parents are very young 75+ year olds. And they are pretty healthy.
But as they age, there are more and more health issues that they are facing now and will be facing in the future. Several surgeries and illnesses over the past few years for both of them have been tough on all of us. And my sisters and myself all live at a minimum of 5+ hours and at a maximum of almost 3,000 miles away. What this means is that they are going through some health situations without their children physically present. They handle it well. However, their children struggle with it at times.
I am constantly amazed at how painful it is to not be in the room with them while they are waiting for a surgery to end or for the results of tests to be delivered. The last few months my dad has been having health issues and talking to them by phone has been so helpful. But there have also been times when I just break down and cry because I am not there holding his hand or hugging my mom. My sisters feel the same way, but we cannot get there for every situation. And that is the rub. Because in all likelihood it will get worse – not better.
Because I know this state of care will progress. The National Institute on Aging says “Caregiving, no matter where the caregiver lives, is often long-lasting and ever-expanding. For the long-distance caregiver, what may start out as an occasional social phone call to share family news can eventually turn into regular phone calls about managing household bills, getting medical information, and arranging for grocery deliveries. What begins as a monthly trip to check on Mom or Dad may become a larger project to move him or her to a new home or nursing facility closer to where you live.”[1} I know I am a ways off from this, but I want to be ready. I want my sisters to be ready. And I want my parents to have all of the independence they need for as long as possible and only to help as needed.
But I have a lot of friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances who are dealing with long-distance caregiving right now. I can name ten persons dealing with this situation just sitting here as I type. And some of them are just exhausted.
Some advice for them from the National Institute on Aging:
“Although you may not feel as physically exhausted and drained as the primary, hands-on caregiver, you may still be worried and anxious. And you might feel guilty about almost everything—about not being closer, not doing enough, not having enough time with your parent, and perhaps even feeling jealous of those who do. Many long-distance caregivers also find that worry about being able to afford to take time off from work, being away from family, or the cost of travel increases these frustrations. Remember that you are doing the best you can given the circumstances and that you can only do what you can do. It may help to know that these are feelings shared by many other long-distance caregivers—you are not alone in this.” 
My parents are amazing. I love them and want to be there for them as they need me. And I want to support my sisters, friends, and other family members as they care for their own parents. Caring for others from a distance is an act of faith – faith in your relationships, faith in your family, faith in your connections, faith in your God to see you all through the journey.
Caring from afar is an amazing gift as well – because it means I have my parents to keep caring for.