Simple steps you take while your parents are healthy and active can ensure that no matter how far apart you live, you'll be prepared in an emergency.

HELP WITH THE BILLS.You can arrange to have utility and housing bills automatically debited from your parent's checking account, or sign up for programs that notify you if payments are missed.

TAKE INVENTORY.

Learn where to find the paperwork on investments and pensions, as well as legal documents such as titles and wills. Talk about what assets can be tapped to pay for their care.

ASSESS INSURANCE COVERAGE.

Neither Medicare nor Medigap pays more than a fraction of the cost of assisted-living facilities or extensive nursing-home care. Some long-term-care policies pay for both, but buying coverage gets more expensive as your parent ages.

To qualify for Medicaid, your parent's assets must be depleted or transferred at least 36 months before entering a nursing home.

Each state has its own rules on income and asset limits. Call (800) 638-6833 for referral to the state office you need. For a free booklet explaining how much Medicare will pay, call (800) 772-1213.

PREPARE FOR A CRISIS.

Be sure your parent has a durable power of attorney, which gives someone he/she chooses the authority to handle financial affairs. A durable power of attorney for health care, naming someone to make medical decisions on his/her behalf, and a living will, spelling out wishes regarding life support, also help protect your parent. Make sure his/her will is current.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.

Companies with 50 or more employees must provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. You also might be entitled to free elder-care consultation and referral services, which can help you arrange for help from afar.

Consider claiming your parent as a dependent if you're providing more than half of his/her support and he/she has an income less than the allowable personal exemption - $2,500 in 1995 and $2,550 in 1996.