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Long-distance caregiving decisions

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

There are many decisions long-distance caregivers make daily. Some long-distance caregiving decisions are more painful than others. This caregiver juggled a full-time job and local part-time caregiving responsibilities to her mother. She also chose to become a long-distance caregiver to her then-octogenarian aunt. What's your long-distance caregiving story?

I still recall the vacation day I took from work - to buy a wheelchair for my then 80-something year old aunt. My aunt had become increasingly frail until she was unable to walk. I'd chosen to step up to the plate to become my aunt's long-distance caregiver of sorts, years prior to my memorable vacation day. Yes, I did say vacation day.

Vacations Were Made for Long-Distance Caregiving?

No one held a gun to my head to use a pre-approved vacation day to visit a local medical equipment and supply store. No one needed to coerce or intimidate me in this care circumstance. My aunt was Mom's last surviving sibling. Had Mom been physically up to the task, she would have jumped at the honors herself. Just as life is what happens when you and I are making other plans, so it did in this family dynamic.

My mother had become increasingly mobility impaired in a manner only a primary caregiver would recognize and understand right off the bat. Well-meaning non-caregivers could, and only would, see and observe my mother's mobility, not her mobility limitations. We all know how that goes, right? We know because we do the honors of lifting when no one else is around. We also perform other assistive care tasks for our elders. Some of us caregivers even do windows.

What Did You Do With Your Vacation?

I left work at noon that day. I headed home, changed into comfy clothes and invited Mom to join me on a surprise adventure. I talked up a cheerleading storm en route to the medical equipment supply store. When I pulled into a parking space directly in front of the store, Mom asked me whether I was taking her "to the hospital." I told her that I'd wanted to surprise her because I knew that she was worried about her sister's rapidly declining health and advancing age.

The surprise, I explained, was that Mom could become directly involved in her sister's eldercare, albeit from a distance of thousands of miles away, by selecting a stylish wheelchair. Once Mom made the decision on the wheelchair, we would both FedEx the wheelchair to her sister's home care provider. (What was I thinking? I was thinking, though. I promise.) Though Mom became a little teary-eyed when she looked at the wheelchair inventory then back at me, I could see, and tell, that she also felt a burden lifted based on being able to do "something," instead of feeling entirely powerless during her sister's end of life transition. As a caregiver, I readily understand feelings of powerlessness.

Caregiver mission accomplished. Wait! That was only the first step of the elaborate long-distance care plan. Sigh.

No One Promised That Shipping a Wheelchair Would be a Walk in the Park

In my continuing caregiver and long-distance caregiver cheerleading hat, off we drove to the closest Fedex location that would accept such bulk shipments. Who knew that wheelchairs could be so heavy? Not me! Loading and unloading a wheelchair into the back of a vehicle is, let's just say, a memorable experience. Trust me. I got ample practice in wheelchair handling, loading, re-loading and unloading that afternoon. My head was throbbing in no time.

The first Fedex location staff had no clue what to do with a real-life, honest to goodness wheelchair. But, of course! Isn't that the way things happen when someone like me is crazy enough to tackle a long-distance wheelchair shipment? Still, I remained a caregiver cheerleader to Mom for the duration of that long afternoon. The throbbing in my head had worsened. I wonder why?

We (eventually) made it to the main Fedex office where they're, uh, prepared for large shipments? Mom still felt upbeat about her long-distance caregiving role. Great! After standing in line for way too long, Mom, I, and the wheelchair were at the Fedex counter. The Fedex employee did not seem the least bit happy about his customers - or our cargo to be shipped. "I can't do that," he said. "We have nothing large enough to put that in." Not so great - bummer, in fact. (Please, Lord. Don't let me have to load this wheelchair back into my car. It's my vacation day, Lord.)

As I turned my somewhat dejected cheerleading spirit away from the grumpy old man behind the corporate counter, another Fedex employee who'd been assisting another customer chimed in: "I think we have a box back there where we can make it work!" His grumpy colleague looked none too pleased. Grumpy colleague replied: "Well, I don't know where that box is."

Not to be deterred, the customer-focused Fedex employee looked at Mom and me. He smiled as he said," If you don't mind waiting for just a bit while I finish helping this customer, I'll be glad to go take a look to see if I can find that box."(Thank You, Lord, for saving my vacation day. I'm physically exhausted, and my head's hurting, big time. A caregiver cheerleader can only do so much with our vacation days, Lord.)

No Problem

The helpful Fedex representative located the right-sized box in no time. Box loaded, plenty of room to spare. Shipping wheelchair problem two surfaced. (I knew that!) The employee said we needed to pad the box to protect the wheelchair's moving parts. No problem. One caregiver cheerleader to the rescue. In the back of my car, I had a box of new nightgowns, comfy t-shirts and blouses, bedroom slippers, body powder, incontinence supplies, and, other little eldercare niceties I'd selected and purchased for Mom to send to her sister's home care providers. We'd kill two birds with one shipment stone.

Grumpy old man had one last customer zinger: "Why are you shipping incontinence supplies? Do they not have these things everywhere?" I didn't answer, though I did write a customer kudo letter to Fedex comparing and contrasting the performance of their two employees' after-the-fact. At the time, I was just wanted my vacation day to end.

In caregiving, all's well that ends well. Mom was thrilled to come to the phone when I called her sister's in-home caregiver to say hello. Mom had done the honors of taking care of her sister long-distance. Reminds me of a little refrigerator magnet I bought many years ago. "If mama's not happy, ain't nobody happy!" Must have been written by a caregiver. Please tell me if I'm wrong. Oh, the things we do for love, in eldercare.