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Critical First Steps

What To Do In A Long-Distance Emergency

As our parents age, many of us prepare for medical emergencies by making lists of mom and dad's vital information, including prescription and over-the-counter medication, medical conditions and physician contact information. Many of us also age-proof our parents' homes by making minor modifications to ensure their physical safety. But the reality is that, until an emergency actually occurs, most of us are not in "prevention" mode.

Until a parent ends up in the emergency room, we often don't recognize the need for such preparation. So, what do you do when you get that call? What do you do if you live far away and can't get to them immediately? How do you manage parents' care from a distance?

Although you might understandably experience a great deal of frustration when faced with a crisis involving your aging parents, there are ways to lessen the anxiety for everyone and ensure that your parents receive the best care possible whether you live minutes, or hours, away.

Crisis Care Step One: Assess The Situation

If you feel a parent might have fallen victim to a medical emergency, you'll need to assess the situation. The first thing to do is to determine the extent of the emergency. Immediate medical emergencies include:

  • Sudden illness
  • Injury
  • Fall
  • Heart Attack
  • Stroke
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Fire

Crisis Care Step Two: Get Immediate Help

Don’t hesitate: If you suspect that your parent is in need of immediate medical attention, call 911 right away. Explain the situation to the 911 operator and ask that your parent receive immediate attention. If possible, make your call to 911 while remaining on another phone with your parent. This will keep you in contact with both your parent and the 911 operator. Sometimes, the operator will need to communicate with your parent, but if you hang up and your parent is injured or confused, you and the operator may not be able to make contact again. Stay on the phone until you have confirmation that emergency aid has reached your parent, but provide emergency personnel with your contact information and ask them what hospital your parent will be taken to so that you can contact the facility immediately.

Crisis Care Step Three: Manage the Aftermath

If the situation warrants, you will need to determine how long it will take you to get to their side, if that is possible. Many employers have time-off policies that will allow you to personally be there to care for your loved one during their illness and recovery. If you can't be there for a while, or at all, you'll want to find someone who can act as an extension of you. Understandably, your own work, family or financial obligations may prevent you from personally managing a parent's care if you live far away. And, many times, there isn't anyone else available to take over for you. Siblings might also live far away, other relatives might not be in a position to step in and asking your parent's friends and neighbors might be out of the question. For these reasons, and many others, your best option might be a professional geriatric care manager.

Geriatric care managers are healthcare professionals trained in managing, directing and coordinating the health needs of the older patient; many may be trained in a number of fields including nursing, gerontology, social work, or psychology, with a specialized focus on issues related to aging and elder care. A geriatric care manager who works in your parent’s area has the local resources and knowledge to serve as your representative in locating the proper care, arranging post-hospital recovery options, living arrangements, and more. A GCM can also help you assess a non-emergency situation and prepare for a parent’ or parents’ future needs. To find out more about geriatric care managers, go to In a crisis, for immediate help, call Parentgiving’s resource service, 1-800-GET CARE.

For more information on caregiving in an emergency as well as planning steps, read So Far Away: Twenty Questions for Long-Distance Caregivers, a booklet from the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. You can download it at:

Rebecca J. Stigall is a freelance writer, author and editor with a background in psychology, education and business. She has written extensively on the topics of self-help, relationships, psychology, health and fitness.