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Long Distance Parent Care

How do we care for our dying family members when we live thousands of miles away?

As I noted in my last post, when it comes to end of life issues, Christians are quick to talk about ethics. But advances in medicine have not just turned the end of life into an ethical minefield. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent front page story today on the increasing number of children caring from afar for their elderly parents. And they're doing so for extended periods of time.

When a parent is dying, the rest of life waits. Now, it often waits longer. As medical science gets better at pulling terminally ill patients from the brink of death, a loved one's final weeks can stretch into months or years. With families often spread across the country or globe, far-flung relatives face heart-rending choices as they wait for the end.

Reporter Susan Warren writes that one woman "took eight trips to her parents' home in Columbus, Ohio, staying weeks at a time. She used up all her vacation and sick time, and then took a family leave. She ran up more than $5,000 in airfare and estimates she lost $15,000 in salary."

For the family of Valliere Wilson, her death was emotionally exhausting, and not simply because their mother died. Wilson had cancer for 15 years. During that time, her children moved, one away from Wilson's home and one back. Two children lived in California and alternated weeks caring for their mother. Their brother's marriage was in tatters after he moved back to Dallas to be with his mother. They faced job pressures and the threat of being fired for taking so much time off to be with their mom.

Then, when Wilson's cancer spread to her lungs, the travelling, caring, and grieving shifted into high gear.

On Feb. 20, Cheryl was with her mother in Dallas, missing a staff meeting in Chicago. She grew worried about rumored layoffs at work. For the first time in her 26 years at the company, she'd gotten a poor annual review, based on low productivity. She'd asked for more work, but her supervisor had noted that it was probably better that she not be stretched while she was dealing with her mom. Cheryl acknowledged, "Actually, I couldn't handle any more."

Meanwhile, Charlotte had just been told that her company's Los Angeles office was closing at the end of the year and she would be out of a job. Cracks had begun surfacing in her longtime relationship with her boyfriend. "Everything was kind of falling to pieces," she said.

15 years after she was diagnosed with colon cancer, Wilson died in her Dallas home with her daughter beside her. It was worth the stress, all of her children agreed, in order to care for their mom as she died. "I always told Mom that I would be there for her when she needs me, and I was," Cheryl said.

But the stress is enormous. And more and more Americans are feeling it. Perhaps this is a topic even greater than bioethics for Christians to pay attention to. What sort of pressures does this put on a family? In what ways can we practice faithful dying while our family is spread across the country? How does this stress affect the medical treatment we want for our parents or they chose for themselves? (Being far away can cause some people to beg their parents to do anything to hang on until they have a chance to visit. On the other hand, a major reason people chose assisted suicide is because they feel they're a burden to their caregivers.)

There is a lot here to think about and which Christians are only beginning to talk about. If you're dealing with this, I am interested in hearing from you. Write me.

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