When my wife, Heather, began her battle with cancer, I was fortunate enough to be able to be with her for her surgery in Boston. But when cancer strikes a family, life unfortunately isn’t put on pause. Having to return to work while she went through her recovery process left me feeling helpless. However, I quickly learned that just because I was far away, didn’t mean I couldn’t still care for her in a meaningful way.
One of the hardest things about being a caregiver — whether for a parent, significant other, a child, or friend — is when a situation arises that prevents you from being physically by their side. You may feel guilty, frustrated, and a host of other negative emotions that will try to overcome you. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to manage the hardships that come with long-distance caregiving, allowing you to remain an invaluable source of support.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the digital age is the endless array of communication technologies. Communication is key in any relationship, and becomes even more crucial when distance is thrown into the equation. Successful communication relies on participation from both people — the talking and listening needs to go both ways.
To help keep the lines open, try some of the following:
- Ask questions. It’s important to also remember that the person being taken care of may feel like a burden, and won’t be as willing to ask for help. Reassure them that you want to know how they are doing, how they are feeling, and what it is they may need from you — even if it’s just a quiet and open ear.
- Make it personal. As personal as possible, anyway. Text messages are quick and easy, but according to a study cited in The Upward Spiral, when people were put in a stressful situation and were then able to talk to loved ones on the phone, they felt better. However, if they only texted, “their bodies had cortisol and oxytocin levels similar to the no-contact group.” Meaning, it was as if they had no support at all. So, use that FaceTime or Skype app, or simply call.
- Visit. It will be important that you do set time and resources aside to be able to go and visit them in person. This may even happen unexpectedly in the case of an emergency, so you should always have the ability to leave quickly if necessary. When you do visit, spend quality time with them doing enjoyable activities rather than only focusing on the cancer, treatment, etc. Make sure they feel like a person, not your patient.
As much as you may try, you cannot control everything — no matter how close or far you are from them. Caring for your loved one from far away, however, may make you feel like you have less control than ever. Just remember that it’s okay to not be able to do everything. When you are away, some of the things you can control and do for them include:
- Get organized. This is one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself. Keep any and all documents, appointments, etc., regarding their health and medical care, finances, and other personal information in place using a filing and tracking system that works best for both of you.
- Stay informed. Learn all you can about your loved one’s illness, their diagnosis, available treatments, and probable outcomes. This will better equip you for helping them make decisions, deal with the day-to-day, and think further into the future. Just make sure you do your due diligence and get your information from trustworthy sources.
The most difficult part of long-distance caregiving is the emotional toll it can take. Guilt, stress, frustration, helplessness — you’ll likely feel it all.
- Make time for you. When focusing on the needs of someone else, it’s all too easy to neglect your own needs. Make an effort to continue the activities you enjoy and that help you destress. It will make you an even better caregiver.
- Seek support for yourself. It’s impossible to take care of someone else if you don’t take care of yourself first. Make sure you reach out to your friends and family for help, reassurance, and to ease stress. You can even join a caregiver support group.