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How to take care of a loved one from a distance

If someone you care about lives in an assisted living or skilled nursing community, it may have been a while since you’ve visited with them face-to-face. Ongoing restrictions at health care facilities have created a new kind of caregiver – someone who lives locally but must remain apart from their loved one. How do you check up on them and reassure yourself that they are doing well?

Some assisted living and skilled nursing communities have begun offering limited visitation, but the pandemic is not over and the situation could change again as senior care communities take measures to protect residents. The reality is that your ability to participate in-person in your loved one’s care may remain limited for some time to come.

Here are some tips that may prove helpful as you continue in your role as a socially distanced caregiver.

  1. Check that power of attorney, advance directives and living wills are in order, so that everyone who needs to be informed about your loved one’s care can receive information from healthcare providers.
  2. Make sure you know how to reach your family member’s doctors and key staff at their senior care facility. You should also have a list of their medications, dosages and the reason they are taking it, as well as who prescribed it. Keep an up-to-date written daily care plan that explains schedules, routines and other details.
  3. Regular phone calls are an easy way to keep in touch with a loved one. In addition, numerous families now enjoy regular video chats and video conference calls. Many senior communities have the technology necessary for such calls, that staff are happy to help schedule. Your loved one will enjoy both seeing and hearing you! Meanwhile, you gain a detailed account of their life and health and can visually assess their well-being.
  4. Cards, letters and photos also can help families maintain their connections. If possible, set up an email account for your loved one. Elderwood offers an on-line portal for families and members of the community to send general greetings and personal messages. Along a more whimsical line, some facilities have created “bottle trees” on their grounds by hanging colorful water bottles on a designated tree. Residents and their friends and family members exchange written messages by tucking them in a bottle for pick-up and delivery.
  5. Knowing that residents thrive on interaction with family and friends from outside the facility, senior communities have found creative ways to facilitate visits. If in-person visitation is not available, ask if there is a first-floor room where families can view and speak with each other through a window.

“Our families are on a schedule for window visits and video calls,” says Alexcia Harrod, director of social services at Elderwood at Wheatfield, a skilled nursing community in Wheatfield, NY. “This way, everyone has something to look forward to each week.”

  1. Some facilities now have measures in place to welcome visitors back into their buildings. In most cases, visits must be scheduled and times may be limited, so check with the individual community for details.
  2. If an in-person visit is not possible, make sure you know the names of appropriate staff to contact if you have a question or concern. Maintain regular communication with one or two staff members who are familiar with your family member’s care. A nurse or social worker, for instance, may be able to provide weekly updates.

“We have been using a variety of approaches in an attempt to update families these past few months,” said Anne Kiss, Director of Social Work and Admissions at Elderwood at Hamburg, a skilled nursing facility in Hamburg, NY. The facility utilizes robocalls and Facebook to offer families timely information. “We also are doing more conference calls for care plan meetings,” she said, “and the residents are thrilled to receive electronic messages from the Elderwood website.”

Health care organizations also are working together to safeguard seniors by limiting their visits to doctors’ offices, without sacrificing their care.

“Tele-med and virtual visits with doctors have been a big help in reducing the amount of times people have to leave the facility,” says Courtney Gfroerer Krueger, community relations coordinator at Elderwood Assisted Living at Tonawanda, in Tonawanda, NY. “There are times when it isn’t possible, but often we can arrange it with the doctor’s office.” 

While the pandemic presents many challenges, developing a support system and open communication with senior care communities will keep you informed and enable you to be a participant in the care of your loved one.

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