Outside the Box: Your parents are older and live far away. How to care for them while keeping everyone safe

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Every six weeks during the pandemic, Tom Briody flies from California to visit his ailing parents near Buffalo. His 90-year-old mother has dementia and his 89-year-old father has end-stage cancer.

Two siblings live near his parents, so they help with daily caregiving duties. But he acknowledges that elder care challenges, tough in the best of times, pose greater obstacles now.

“I think it’s essential for my parents to be connected to their children,” said Briody, chief executive of the San Francisco-based Institute on Aging. “When I go to see them, I don’t stay in their house. We visit outside on the patio.”

Briody, 61, is not alone. Adult children often face the dreaded prospect of tracking their elderly parents’ daily lives from afar, monitoring their medical care, helping manage their household and coordinating the schedules of home health aides and other service providers.

While Briody takes precautions to avoid contracting the coronavirus, he does not get tested for every cross-country visit or quarantine upon arrival. It’s wrenching to maintain physical distance from his parents after traveling so far to see them, but he doesn’t want to get too close for fear of infecting them.

“We face the same challenges as all families in this situation,” he said. “Do you take extreme measures to protect [elderly parents] versus taking some risk to give them a better quality of life? As a family, we’ve discussed one extreme of limiting my parents’ [face-to-face] interaction with family members versus quality of life and seeing their children. We decided, with my parents’ involvement, that quality of life is more important.”

If, like Briody, you decide to trek a long distance to see ailing loved ones, pay special attention to mealtimes. That’s when family members sit around a table—unmasked to eat—for more than 15 minutes.

It’s easy to get complacent and assume that no one in your inner circle is a carrier. But it’s tough to verify that in real time, so maintain physical distance and dine outside if possible.

If you opt not to travel, here are three ways to enhance your caregiving from afar:

Assemble a team of visitors. If you can’t check up on your mom or dad in person, find trusted allies who can. Ideally, enlist your parents’ local friends and neighbors to drop in regularly and report back to you on what they see.

Ask them to snoop a little. Does the place look clean and well kept? Is the fridge stocked with fresh items (as opposed to soured milk or wilted veggies)? Are the home health aides administering your parents’ medications and noting changes in behavior, mood and overall health?

“When you have boots on the ground, that person can also check the pill bottles to make sure [your parents] have been taking their meds on schedule,” said Bridget Ritossa, founder of Careplan Geriatric Care Managers in Cleveland. “They can also check for good hygiene and make sure there’s no weight loss. And look for any change in behavior, which can be related to a urinary tract infection that [an aide or companion] may not identify.”

Hire a geriatric care manager. Absent an informal network of friends or relatives who can visit your loved one frequently, consider retaining a geriatric care manager. Most of them are licensed social workers or nurses, so they can serve as your proxy and provide support, resources and home visits.

“With the rise in COVID-19 cases, never before has the role of a geriatric care manager been so important,” Ritossa said. “Our goal is to keep older adults in their home. When we assess that it no longer makes financial sense to keep the older adult at home, then we explore a move” into a facility.

Harness technology. Home remote monitoring systems enable long-distance caregivers to keep tabs on daily activities. Examples include GreatCall, which provides products and services such as medical alert tools.

To fight off social isolation, seniors can upload recent family photos or make video calls with the easy-to-use GrandPad tablet device. And some smartwatches, such as Apple Watch AAPL, +2.32%  and Fitbit FIT, -0.27%, offer fall detection features that notify caregivers if the wearer falls and needs help.

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