How to Provide Alzheimer's Support From a Distance

10 Ideas to Help Provide Alzheimer's Care From Far Away
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Long-distance help for someone with Alzheimer's

Whether you live across the country or across town, if you're not the one primarily responsible for the care of someone with Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia, it's easy to feel helpless or be unsure how to help. Here are some productive ideas.

Lend a supportive ear

It's simple but critical: offer emotional support to the person's primary caregiver. Caregiver stress is a constant threat. Acknowledge to him that it's a very real problem and address the issue before it morphs into burnout. Especially when the caregiver is the patient's spouse or another family member, check in regularly to see how he's feeling and to ask how you can help.

Checking in if it's a professional caregiver can likewise boost morale and help avoid a disruptive staff turnover. Listen attentively to the primary caregiver's concerns. Look for areas where you can provide practical help (such as locating a support group or relief care for him), and try not to be overly critical when evaluating the care he's providing. Remember to thank him.

Connect with the patient

Someone suffering from Alzheimer's may not always remember that you just called or visited, but your doing so anyway makes her happy in the moment and eases stress -- important to her overall well-being. Be aware that phone calls may become uncomfortable for the person, because memory loss interferes with her ability to follow conversations and she can't benefit from facial cues and other body language. Even if the person is your parent or a family member, introduce yourself clearly and avoid asking questions that might seem like memory tests: "What did you do last weekend?" It's better to give an update of what you've been up to. Ask easy yes-no questions: "Do you like your new easy chair?"

  • Write letters and send cards, even if these have never been your preferred modes of communication. She'll likely find it easier to follow what you're talking about if she can review something on paper at her leisure.
  • Another good way to say hello is to send photos with labels on the back that identify everyone in the picture. In addition to pictures of family members, send images of your home, your new dog, a re-covered sofa, a vacation, and other experiences that tell about your life.

Don't leave all the medical know-how to others

Even if you're not providing hands-on care, if you understand the key issues in Alzheimer's disease and its care, you can keep better track of what's going on. One of the biggest complaints of caregivers is that relatives and friends living far away have no idea how much work is involved in caring for someone with Alzheimer's, nor do they realize how many different issues there are to manage. Learn the basics about the disease's progression and manifestations.

Make visits to someone with Alzheimer's productive

Provide help

  • L end the primary caregiver an active hand, perhaps preparing a meal or tackling a cleaning chore. Observing and participating in the person's care will also help you identify other areas where you may be able to help, like replacing a small appliance that's not working properly or sending flowers on a monthly basis because she enjoys them so much.
  • Plan your visit with the purpose of giving the primary caregiver some respite, if you can. Day-to-day caregiving can be time-consuming and exhausting. Caregivers need an occasional break. If you're uncomfortable doing this, start with short outings or day trips so you can learn the ropes, and work up to weekends or longer stints.
  • Don't forget to build in leisure time for you to spend time with the person. Join her in relaxing activities such as looking through photo albums or participating in activities that she enjoys. Stick as much to her regular routine as possible, however, so as not to agitate or confuse her. Depending on her condition, dinner at home may be less stressful than taking her out to a fancy restaurant, for example.

Be the techie

If nobody directly involved in the person's care has the inclination, ability, or time to research assistive technology, volunteer t o do this. Software can provide computerized or voice-activated medication and appointment reminders, for example. Assistive devices and sensors can locate lost objects and detect overheated rooms, floods, carbon monoxide, wandering, or falls. Ask your local Alzheimer's Association branch or a geriatric care manager for suggestions appropriate to this particular situation.

More ways to help someone with Alzheimer's

Provide financial help

Alzheimer's care -- including medications, home healthcare visits, adult daycare, and medical checkups -- is expensive. Insurance and Medicare leave many things without coverage. Offering financial assistance is one of the most common ways physically distant children or other relatives and friends can help. You could contribute a set amount on a regular basis, for use as needs arise ("unrestricted funds").

Or, depending on your budget, arrange to be billed directly for a particular aspect of care, such as home-healthcare visits or a professional service that makes the person's life easier -- housecleaning, meal delivery, prescription delivery, or lawn maintenance. If the patient doesn't use such services now, look into initiating them. When you need to locate a particular service, check the Yellow Pages for her area.

In lieu of cash, one way to help financially is to work with the primary caregiver to figure out whether any of the patient's long-term care expenses qualify as tax deductions or credits (for either the patient or the caregiver). You could also offer to help with taxes or arrange direct deposits for bill-paying. With so many responsibilities and tasks to take care of day to day, the caregiver may not have time to do these things herself.

Stay in the loop

If the person with Alzheimer's is a parent or other close relative, or a close friend, it's a good idea to keep a copy of her medical care and history, if she'll give legal approval. You should also have a list of the physicians and other healthcare professionals who care for her. This information keeps you up-to-date for times when you or family members need to make decisions with each other, or when you need to provide backup care in case the primary caregiver unexpectedly can't do the job.

Join a local Alzheimer's group

Some people find it helpful to learn from the experiences of others at a local Alzheimer's support group, even though they themselves live at a distance from the patient. Hearing from caregivers, family members, and friends caring for someone with Alzheimer's can give you new perspectives on this person's situation. While the disease affects everyone differently, commonalities exist, and you can learn helpful coping strategies and ways to provide support.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 3 years, said...

My mom has alzheimers and my sister recently put her in a care facility. I live in the northwest and my mom lives in the south. I call her often and send her a card once a week. Most of the time the conversations are ok. Twice now, she has been really down and feeling abandoned. The first time I was able to bring her out of it, the second no matter what I said, she continued in the "loop." Both times were on a Sunday. I know the first time she had a well meaning visitor, that said some things that should not have been said to her. I am not sure of the second time, if she had a visitor or not. I would welcome any suggestions in how to help her in those times. My husband also has middle stage dementia. The article is very helpful. Thank you.

over 4 years, said...

Our children all lived out of state when my husband was going through the roughest of dementia symptoms. They begged me to call them so they could help in some way. I did. I would call them when I just couldn't handle another second of combat and they would keep him on the phone while I just took a minute to regroup. They would engage him in sometimes inane conversations just to hold his attention for five or ten minutes. I cannot tell you how valuable that was to me and how satisfying it was for them to be able to help me and their father. They felt that they were participating in his care even though they could not be with us. These calls to our children became nightly towards the end but my husband became less tolerating of the use of the phone. Even five minutes was enough for me to gather strength and catch my breath. They were constantly with me and their dad throughout his illness and they take comfort in that.

over 4 years, said...

How common is it to care for a final stage Alzheimer's patient in the home instead of a nursing home. Are there any protocol lists or helpful sites that tell you how to complete this while keeping the patient well care for.

over 5 years, said...

The idea of being clear over the phone and not asking difficult questions and focusing on sharing information rather than asking questions.

over 5 years, said...

I've been feeling so saddened and angry at the reaction of my children when I express frustration with my husband who has Alzheimer's disease. My daughter particularly seems very unaware of my need for just a little comforting reassurance. I know she's busy; but she finds very little time for either my husband or for me and she lives quite close.

almost 6 years, said...

There's so much in here that I hadn't thought of and some I was already doing but didn't realize how important it could be! Mom is on the West Coast and I'm on the East but have even contacted old family friends (so many have already passed away) to encourage them to WRITE or send a CARD as Mom loves to get mail and this makes her feel she's not forgotten; hearing from people in her past brings up fun memories, too. I'm flying out for her 90th birthday in 3 weeks.

almost 7 years, said...

I have a hard time asking for help from our children. They have full, active lives: Nine adult children and 23 grandchildren (almost 4 great-grandchildren). Right now I feel We're okay, but I know as he digressses, I will have those difficult times. I know they love their dad and they have offered help from time to time. Guess I need to get rid of my "I can do that" mentality! I appreciate the care you give day by day. It helps to see what others go through and what they did to get through it.

almost 7 years, said...

Great ideas. Am hoping to send them along to family members.

almost 7 years, said...

it really is wonderful to hear from someone anmd to feel wanted

almost 7 years, said...

hanks very much--it was helpful--m.goodkin

about 7 years, said...

Pointing out things I hadn't even thought of. For example, who's going to prepare the meals? At least for the early stage, no problem, but as AD progresses, this must be dealt with.

over 7 years, said...

I am long distance daughter with a sister living with Mom and a sister across the street. They are overtaxed as they both must work full time. This article gave concrete examples of how to be helpful and what to consider in terms of their respite needs.

over 7 years, said...

I believe that preserving the Independance, Dignity and resoursces of our elderly with Alzheimer's and Dementia is one of the most important things we can do for them. I have recently become very involved with this issue in the last 4 months in that I have actually gone out and researched devices that allow persons to stay at home while still giving the family that piece of mind knowing that thier loved one is safe and being looked after in a virtual manner. Want more information call me at 888-399-8226.

over 7 years, said...

my great grandma is turning 82 this year and she is showing signs of altzheimer's. we just lost grandpa last year to cancer and a heart attack. it was very hard for all of us. thats when the signs started showing im scared of losing her soon. she is healthy and all, but im not sure what to do i see her when i can but its not enough for me or her... She has no health insurance or anything that i know of. her and grandpa are the ones that raised me, i want to help and give back what they have done for me, if anyone has ideas or ways to help please do....

about 8 years, said...

What a great article! Even though it was posted so long ago, I still have to comment. As a primary caregiver of my boyfriends mom, I have to say to those of you that are at a distance, "make the time, make the call, make the trip, extend the ear". Mark and I are the only ones caring for Pat. The relief we have is her 1 hour a week hair appointment and a once a month weekend to her daughter's. Not only do we get depressed at the end of the month, but she gets depressed. Being together all the time, living Alzheimer's 24/7, gets to you. Anything to break it up is welcoming for both sides, while it lasts. With Alzheimer's, we need to live in the here and now. If you need helpful tips of activities to try, try my article:

about 9 years, said...

Caring from a Distance at also offers a wealth of information on connecting with local networks to find eldercare support