Long-Distance Support Systems

Family, friends, neighbors, community agencies, and even employers can provide valuable support as you care for your long-distance loved one.

As a long-distance caregiver, it is especially important for you to establish support systems for both your loved one and yourself. Other family members are an obvious resource, but some may be more willing than others to share in the caregiving burden. Others may be willing but lack the resources to carry a large chunk of the responsibility. Regardless, there are enough tasks related to long-distance caregiving that everyone who wants to be involved can help significantly.

Family members who live too far away to provide hands-on caregiving might be in a position to help with financial or legal matters than can be handled by phone or mail. Others can take charge of recognizing special occasions with cards, plants, or small remembrances, as well as sending your loved one family photos or news. If you have teen-aged children, don’t hesitate to ask them to get involved as well. Consider this an opportunity to strengthen family bonds and teach your children about empathy and responsibility. And don’t forget neighbors and friends in your loved one’s community who may be willing to provide transportation or help with shopping, household chores, and other tasks.

Along with the help that you and others provide from afar, your loved one may need caregiving assistance from someone closer to home. Every community has various resources and services to help you care for your distant loved one. In addition, national organizations or foundations, like the Alzheimer’s Association or the National Kidney Foundation, can offer advice for meeting disease-specific health needs. Also, if your loved one has or had a favorite church, consult the clergy there for referrals and resources.

Can Your Employer Help?

Studies show that the average caregiver spends 18 hours a week on caregiving duties. Consequently, working caregivers often must sacrifice work hours to fulfill those duties. Some even give up work or retire early. Realizing that this situation will only worsen as our population ages, many companies have shored up employee retention and productivity by making life easier for their caregiving employees.

A 1996 survey of work and family benefits for salaried employees showed that nearly one-third of the businesses surveyed offered eldercare programs, such as resource and referral programs, support groups, and employee assistance programs. Other companies provide counseling services for caregivers, as well as long-term care insurance to fill gaps in Medicaid and Medicare coverage, or to cover part of the cost of family caregiving. Ask your employer’s human resources representatives what services are currently offered, and inform them of any eminent or future concerns. Companies frequently reassess their benefits to identify services that are most-needed by their employees.

Be sure to inquire about the availability of the following services:

  • Visiting nurse services. Some companies can provide reimbursement or direct subsidies for visiting nurse costs.
  • Emergency care. The purpose of emergency care is to assure that care will be available when regular arrangements are not, or when other circumstances dictate a short-term need.
  • Flexible spending or dependent care accounts. In dependent care assistance programs (DCAPs), your employer deducts a specified amount from your income to be placed in a dependent care assistance fund. Through such an arrangement, you won’t be taxed on the amount set aside for dependent care assistance.
  • Flexible schedules and leaves of absence. Some companies make allowances for time off when caregiving duties take precedence.

Know Your Rights

Under the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a covered employer must grant an eligible employee up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in a 12 month period to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent—but not an “in-law”) with a serious health condition. The law permits you to use—or your employer to require you to use—accrued paid leave, such as vacation or sick leave, for some or all of the FMLA leave period. You may also be eligible for other family and medical leave through your employer’s benefits package or labor contract.

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