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Posted on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5 a.m.

Take steps to monitor elderly parent's welfare from afar

By Ask Dr. K


How can I help care for my elderly mother? She lives alone, but not close enough for me to visit regularly.


My father died young, but my mother lived into her late 70s. She lived 3,000 miles away, and alone. As she started to lose some of her energy and independence, it was pretty stressful for me. You just can't know what's going on with the person you love. Supervising care and handling problems that arise are difficult, too.

Here are some tips I followed. I hope they can ease some of your difficulties:

-- Book regular trips. When you visit your mother, try to arrive at the beginning of the week. That way, you'll have several weekdays to handle problems and line up services. Call ahead to make appointments if you plan to research caregivers or nursing homes.

-- If you're checking up on caregivers already in place, it may be better not to give advance notice. When you arrive, look around and ask yourself: How is your mother doing? Is the house clean? Are pantry and fridge shelves well stocked? Are bills being paid?

-- Take some time to organize important papers. If possible, make copies of these documents to take home, or at least note where this information is kept.

-- Set up a safety net. Give neighbors or friends a set of house keys. Look into medical alert systems, such as a pendant your mother can press if she falls or needs help in an emergency. I did that with my mother. Although she never had to use it, knowing it was there was a source of great comfort to her and to me. Have a regular phone-in time to check that everything is fine. Arrange for regular visitors. Ask friends, relatives and neighbors to alert you if anything seems worrisome.

-- Keep helpful numbers handy. Put together a single list of doctors, social workers, neighbors, friends and helpful agencies.

-- Arrange necessary services. When possible, interview and hire people, such as home nursing staff, in person. If you're far enough away like I was, that isn't always possible. Arrange for non-health services, such as landscaping, grocery delivery and cleaning services, as well.

-- Keep tabs on finances. Check financial statements to stay apprised of any possible problems or financial abuse.

-- Hire a geriatric-care manager located in your mother's area. That can lift a large weight off your shoulders. He or she can help cut through red tape and efficiently coordinate care. Your mother's doctor may have some recommendations.

A neighbor checked in with my mother every day, and vice versa. If my mother was going to be away, she let the neighbor know. They were good and trusted friends. The neighbor had a key to my mother's apartment.

One day, my mother didn't answer the phone when the neighbor called. Mom's car was in the garage. The neighbor entered her apartment and discovered that she had died in her sleep the night before. Her loss hit me hard, but that was how she wanted to go. And I took comfort in knowing she had felt safe and secure in the last years of her life.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)

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