By Madge Kaplan
The long-distance caregiver always worries. About the home aides coming in and out of her father's home, most of whom she's never met. About the medic alert button that's never been truly tested but could save his life. About the phone that doesn't answer when she knows he must be home. About the walker that tends to get caught in rugs and slippers and sidewalks.
The long-distance caregiver always wonders … if she should visit more. Drop everything she's doing and relocate to be closer to her father. Go to doctors' appointments with him; cook nutritious meals; load the freezer with dinners that can be popped into a microwave on any given night.
She wonders about his medications and why she hasn't learned all the names and doesn’t have an up-to-date list. Why she doesn’t insist the doctors speak with her more often, to fill in the blanks.
The long-distance caregiver, like her father, worries about money. He always carried plenty of insurance but not, it turns out, for long-term care. She wonders why she never thought to ask. Why she didn't insist he be prepared to live a long, but now disabled life. Recently someone told her, you must inventory your family's resources if you're going to do this eldercare thing right. When should that have happened? Did she turn away at just the wrong moment … when her father's life, always the center of attention, just became too much to deal with and she needed to focus, finally, on her own? She thinks about the money she's now parting with to help her father and wonders whether she's doing too much or too little.
As she worries about her father and when the next crisis will erupt, she wonders when she'll have the energy to anticipate her own long-term needs. Someone sent her a form to help determine whether her 401(K) is doing enough and what else she should be doing to achieve a cushion for later. Later. When is later? Her father had ignored the issue completely. She doesn’t intend to, but this form that's sitting on her desk, she still hasn't filled it out. Soon, she says to herself, soon, she'll get to it and see what makes sense.
The long-distance caregiver is grateful for the advice of friends, many of whom have similar dilemmas. And she’s grateful for the geriatric social worker she hired who visits her father and makes sure he doesn’t miss out on services. The social worker talks to her like another human being. Believe me, she says, there's no way to be a perfect family caregiver ... just do the best you can. Yes, the long-distance caregiver nods to the person on the other end of the phone she still hasn’t met in person. The social worker says that more and more grown children need her assistance because they live far away from their aging parents. That makes the long-distance caregiver feel less alone. But as the days and weeks tick by, she wonders just how long she’ll be able to afford all this reassurance.
Madge Kaplan has written memoir vignettes, essays, poems, and short plays, all during her careers in teaching, broadcast journalism, and communications. Many of her pieces have hit the airwaves, appeared in online publications, and been performed. Writing prompts often surface memories and the first brush with topics worth developing further. One of those topics is mental health, about which Madge says she's not alone in wanting to bring greater visibility, humanity, understanding, and solidarity. She writes from Cambridge, MA.