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posted: 10/1/2012 6:15 AM

Long-distance care questions loom as boomers age

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  • Robyn Miller surveys a new apartment for her grandparents and mother with landlord Linda Gilbert, right. She is moving them all to a rental in Sacramento, Calif., so they will be closer.

    Robyn Miller surveys a new apartment for her grandparents and mother with landlord Linda Gilbert, right. She is moving them all to a rental in Sacramento, Calif., so they will be closer.
    SHNS photo

By Anita Creamer
Sacramento Bee

In a crisis, the highway seems to stretch out forever. Robyn Miller's loved ones live in Pinole, almost 70 miles southwest of Sacramento, Calif., an 80-minute drive on a good day. Her grandmother, Catherine Volzke, is 90 and holds the aging household together. She cares for her husband, Merlin Volzke, 86, who suffers from stroke-related dementia, as well as their daughter -- Robyn's mother -- Eileen Miller, who is 68 and has early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

"The worry never leaves your mind," said Robyn Miller, 38, a law school student. "I go to bed every night thinking, 'I hope my phone doesn't ring tonight.'

"When something goes wrong, you can't be there quick enough."

She finally decided the situation was intolerable. Pregnant with her first child and entering her final year of law school, she is moving her mother and grandparents to Sacramento.

It's a relief to think they'll just be a few miles away," she said.

If living a few counties away from aging relatives is enough to cause anxiety, imagine living several thousand miles across the country. How do people take care of their parents from afar?

The answers, as more than 5 million long-distance caregivers have already learned, can be hard to find but they're increasingly crucial in a rapidly aging nation. The silver tsunami of baby boomers, in the thick of caring for elderly relatives today, will themselves be recipients of care in coming decades.

Fifteen percent of the country's 34 million caregivers live an hour or more away from aging relatives who need their help, according to National Institute on Aging data. The average distance for respondents in a 2004 MetLife care giving study was 450 miles, and almost a quarter of those surveyed said they were their loved ones' only caregivers.

They spend money to take care of their relatives: an average of $400 a month. Not surprisingly, the caregivers living the farthest spend the most -- almost $9,000 a year, AARP statistics show.

And they spend time, too. Half of long-distance caregivers visit several times a month to help with shopping, medical appointments and paying bills. More than 40 percent told MetLife that they had to take time off work because of their care giving responsibilities.

Caring for fragile loved ones from a distance can be a frustrating, exhausting endeavor, even for people who are professionals in the field.

As chief program officer for the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California, Elizabeth Edgerly often deals with the concerns of adult children desperate to find help for aging parents elsewhere.

"Even putting things into place, you know that from a distance there's only so much you can do," she said. "But the same can be true when you live close by."

Edgerly urges family members to make a plan. Are there other people living near the parents -- another sibling, perhaps, or a longtime friend -- who can be involved? What kind of resources can the family invest in finding help? Is the family open to hiring a geriatric care manager, a paid professional who lives near the parents and can monitor them on the family's behalf?

Oftentimes, when dementia is the issue, the situation seems more urgent. If people suspect dementia is encroaching on aging parents' lives, a good first step is arranging a medical evaluation.

"The children need to know what they're up against," said Anne Spaller, clinical consultant for Del Oro Caregiver Resource Center, which provides assistance to caregivers of the frail elderly in 13 Northern California counties.

"Once we get a good baseline assessment, we can arrange for help and care, be it moving them to assisted living or finding help in the home."

The process can be emotionally difficult and financially burdensome. Old family dynamics can arise, for example, with one sibling typically shouldering most of the burden from afar and resenting the fact that the others don't help.

Relatives also quickly discover that care is not covered by Medicare.

Even more frustrating is the possibility that aging parents won't agree to the help that their relatives have painstakingly arranged on their behalf.

"We've seen people quit their jobs and move across the country to care for their loved ones," said Edgerly. "What are you going to do? They sell their house here and move back in with Mom and Dad."

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