Lawrence Pulliam, around age 18, when he was a private in the Air Corps branch of the Reserves.

My father suffered a massive stroke while visiting his sister in Florida. He was more than 3,000 miles from his home in Washington state and more than 2,500 from mine in Los Angeles.

Lawrence Pulliam, around age 18, when he was a private in the Air Corps branch of the Reserves.

As anyone who’s dealt with such a crisis can tell you: It’s never easy. But taking certain steps can make caring for an elderly parent possible even when you’re far away. The more you do in advance, the better. Such as:

Get documents drafted. Your parents (and you, for that matter) need three legal documents to protect quality of life:

  • A power of attorney for health care.
  • A power of attorney for finances.
  • A living will (also known as an advance health directive).

The first two documents specify who can make decisions should the person drafting the document become incapacitated, while the third outlines what types of end-of-life measures the person does and doesn’t want. The nonprofit Aging with Dignity offers a living will called Five Wishes that’s recognized in most states.

Simplify finances. Having numerous bank and investment accounts makes it tough to properly monitor a financial situation, so discuss consolidating accounts to one or two institutions for easier administration. Setting up a financial aggregation tool, such as Mint, for their accounts can help you keep track, assuming your parents agree, says Carolyn McClanahan, a medical doctor and CFP professional at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. If your parents are hesitant, let them know that Mint and similar tools don’t give you access to the accounts — they just allow you to monitor what’s going on, McClanahan says.

It could be that your parents aren’t hesitant at all — they’re eager to add you to accounts so you’re able to pay the bills and take care of other details. Being added to a checking account is typically not a problem, but talk to an estate-planning attorney before anyone is added to other accounts. Putting someone on an investment account or home deed can have tax or other repercussions.

Assess those finances. Getting an insight into your parents’ money situation can help you gauge their options. If they eventually need help at home, can they afford a caregiver? For how long? Do they have long-term care insurance that can help pay the bills? What services are available in their area, publicly funded or otherwise? The Eldercare Locator site can point you to help with housing, utility bills, medications, meals, health insurance, caregiver services and more. BenefitsCheckUp, a site run by the National Council on Aging, offers a similar function.

Consider hiring a care manager. These professionals can evaluate your parents’ situation, offer suggestions for making their lives easier and put them in touch with services that may help them. These assessments typically cost a few hundred dollars and can start an invaluable relationship with a knowledgeable resource who can help you spot and solve problems as your parents age. I found our care manager, a former nurse, through what’s now called the Aging Life Care Association. She translated the medical jargon, found an excellent rehabilitation center and helped hire a companion to keep Dad company when I couldn’t be there. The National Association of Social Workers is another resource for professionals who can help.

Watching over your parents long distance

Meet their people. McClanahan suggests that you schedule a visit just to meet neighbors, friends, doctors and other professionals, such as their banker, lawyer and financial adviser. Give these people your contact information and get theirs. Ideally, your parents would encourage the people you meet to call you with any concerns. But just having met you could make these people more comfortable reaching out to you if there’s an issue, McClanahan says.

Set aside some savings. Last-minute plane flights and time off work can be expensive. Having an emergency fund can take away some of the stress of dealing with those costs.

Set up video chats. Phone conversations may not be enough to alert you to problems, McClanahan says. An iPad set up with FaceTime or a personal computer with Skype can help you see if your folks look disheveled or the house looks cluttered or dirty. “People who are in cognitive decline don’t take care of themselves very well, or their surroundings,” McClanahan says.

Take emotions into account

How cooperative will your parents be? I’ve had some people tell me how happy their parents were to discuss these matters — and others whose folks were even more ornery than they anticipated. Your parents may be relieved, or they may be resentful, angry, suspicious of your motives or simply in denial that they need help, or ever will. All you can do is your best.

We never did get Dad home. He didn’t recover enough to travel, and eventually died of complications from the stroke. The months spent caring for him, in person and from afar, were hard and stressful — but they were a blessing as well. He needed me, and I’m grateful I had the chance to be there for him.

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