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How Can You Care for Aging Parents Who Live Far Away?

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Emily German is worried that her mom doesn’t remember when she last visited her. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, Emily’s mom lives in New York and Emily lives in New Orleans, which makes their visits not only extra important but extra fraught.

“My mom doesn’t remember whether I was just there or haven’t been home in a while,” she says. “It’s often frustrating to spend all of this time, money and effort traveling and helping her. I often get caught up in thinking it’s all going to ‘waste.’” This, in a nutshell, is what makes long-distance caregiving so very difficult for family members.

To work through these emotions, Emily practices her own kind of mantra. “Whenever I feel this way, I remember that I wouldn’t trade the time I get to spend with my Mom for the world,” says Emily, 24. “I know that she is happy in that moment and that all this traveling is worth it.”

Right after she graduated from college, Emily returned to New York to help her father care-give and to be as close to her mom as possible. But, to be the best support she could be, it became clear that she should return to New Orleans to start her career. “I realized that living near my mom was putting an unnecessary weight on my shoulders and was holding me back from reaching my full potential, which strained our relationship,” she says. “Living separately from my family, I can thrive as an individual and, without any excuses of hiding behind my mother’s disease, I can focus on my career and the other relationships in my life.”

This doesn’t mean that Emily isn’t fully involved in her mother’s care, which requires someone to be with her at all times, including a caretaker at the house six hours a day during the week while Emily’s dad is at work and a family friend does the night shift to make sure Emily’s mom has dinner and stays safe. 

Then, every four to six weeks, Emily travels to New York to spend time with her mom and, in between, uses FaceTime to keep in touch. “As a caregiver from a distance, it is important to me to support those that are on the front lines,” she says. “So, when I take my mom out for the day, I think of that as giving my dad time to relax on his own. When I send my mom flowers I think of that as supporting my dad in making my mom happier in that moment.”

What Emily tries to do is always remember her mom’s strength and her incredible ability to juggle the pressures of working as a fashion executive and being a very hands-on mom. “My mom built Liz Claiborne into what it was in the ‘90s, establishing multiple different brands for them and becoming president of their sportswear division,” she says. “She has been an incredible role model for me my entire life. She was a badass in the workplace, prioritized dinner at home every night and showed up with cupcakes for my class on every one of my birthdays.”

It’s Emily’s love for her mom that has enabled her to focus on taking care of her and traveling home as often as she can to spend time with her. “She’s a really special human being and her bright, stubborn personality is what I attribute to the slow progression of the disease thus far,” she says. “She is a fighter.”

What has really helped, Emily adds, is connecting to others who are caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. “The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, which helps and educates people with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones through free services has been very helpful to me,” she says. “Having people to talk to about how much I want to be there with my mom, to be present — there’s this constant feeling that I’m missing out on some of the last memories I could have with my mom — helps.”

In the end, what helps Emily the most is to do her best to stay in the present — even when she encounters flight delays and travel challenges on her way home to her mom. “I try to remind myself to not just keep holding onto my past and my childhood but to find a healthy balance and think about my future, too,” she says.

Tip: Asking for help is very important, suggests Molly Fogel, LCSW, director of education and social services at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “It’s best to set up a care team to help manage your loved one’s care,” she says. “If you can afford to hire a geriatric care manager, this will also help as this person can be on the ground managing your loved one’s medical appointments, checking in on her regularly and I always say: The earlier you can start a conversation about care and what that will look like, the better everyone will be at accepting the help and keeping the relative safe.”

This article was originally written by Lambeth Hochwald. 

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