If you live an hour or more away from a loved one you care for, you are a long-distance caregiver. Caring for a loved one can be challenging: scheduling medical appointments, ensuring they take their medication as prescribed, managing their finances and paying their bills, making sure there is food in the fridge, providing emotional support, making sure they are happy and safe... Caregivers play many significant roles, which can be particularly complex when they have to be accomplished remotely.
According to Statistics Canada, more than 8 million Canadians provide care to a friend or loved one with a chronic health condition or disability.(1; 2) It is estimated that approximately 12% of family caregivers provide support to a family member who lives at least an hour away by car.(2) If you are one of these long-distance caregivers, it’s important to realize that you are not alone.
What the research tells us
There is limited research evidence allowing us to paint a clear picture of long-distance caregivers.(2; 3) That being said, there appears to be a similar proportion of men and women who play the role of long-distance caregivers. Most of them have to juggle between their professional and caregiving responsibilities. They often come from smaller families and must share care responsibilities with professionals from the public and private sectors.
Studies have found that, despite the distance separating them from their loved ones, long-distance caregivers provide the same types of support as caregivers living nearby.(3) This is particularly the case with regard to the maintenance of the house, planning medical appointments and coordinating follow-up care, providing temporary respite for local caregivers, managing finances, and preparing meals when visiting. This can be explained by the fact that these distant caregivers sometimes visit their loved ones for a few days at a time, and that they take advantage of these extended stays to accomplish more tasks. Yet, distance seems to complicate their role as caregivers, particularly with respect to sharing information about the care needs of their loved ones.
On the financial side, studies indicate that being a long-distance caregiver increases the likelihood of making significant financial contributions.(3) Such financial contributions are sometimes a way for long-distance caregivers to show that they care. Nevertheless, long-distance caregivers are not more likely to receive financial assistance from government programs or to receive more tax credits.
Studies on the experiences of long-distance caregivers have also examined what impact it has on their well-being. These studies appear to contradict the expression: "out of sight, out of mind”. In fact, geographical separation seems to exacerbate stressors for caregivers.(3) Long-distance caregivers experience stress levels as high as local caregivers providing care to people with dementia. Finally, despite the similarity in the proportion of men and women who are long-distance caregivers, gender inequalities persist: career sacrifices, family conflicts and emotional distress seem more frequent among women.
How long-distance caregivers can help
According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging,(4; 5) long-distance caregivers can play a number of crucial roles for their loved ones, including:
- helping with their finances and paying their bills;
- organizing home-care services and facilitating the purchase of medical equipment;
- communicating regularly with them to offer emotional support (writing and phoning them, or contacting them with a video application);
- providing occasional respite care to local caregivers who assume most of the day-to-day responsibilities;
- coordinating information (facilitating the transfer of information between health professionals, conducting searches to find information about their health problems and medications, helping them identify their needs, and navigating local programs and services to meet their needs);
- keeping family members and friends informed;
- getting their paperwork in order in case of an emergency; or
- having their home assessed to ensure it is a safe environment.
And remember: your role as a long-distance caregiver will evolve over time, and will need to be aligned with the evolving needs of your loved ones.