Far Away And Growing Old

My Ageing Parents

My parents are an interesting lot. Both born in occupied Poland during WWII and spending post-war 45 years of their lives under the communist rule, they had their share of hardship. Still, they remained intellectually curious, mobile, even adventurous for their times. They were active in the Solidarity movement. When it collapsed, they took up university teaching in Algeria and spent seven years at the edge of Sahara. They changed jobs. They kept adjusting.

They were in their mid-50s when I left with the kids for the US; from there, we went to Kosovo, and moved to Georgia two years later. In five years, I could only afford visiting my parents three times. But my jobs in Georgia offered home leave for me and the children so we could go at least once a year for summer holidays. Finally, my boys could spend time with their grandparents. Every time we visited, they were the same energetic, intellectually active people. 

Until – what came to me as an unexpected change – one year they seemingly decided that they were already old. And from that point on, they started aging. I remember a moment when we were saying goodbye to them after the summer and I thought, with a sudden pang of guilt: they are really growing old and frail – what if something happens to them when I’m not around?

Ageing parents
When saying goodbye to your ageing parents becomes increasingly difficult, year after year

Expat Dilemmas

In the past 30 years, I have had this conversation with many of my expat colleagues. Anything from “my mother is ill, I will have to arrange it somehow to visit her more often” and “my parents will have to move into an assisted living unit” to “my father passed away and I wasn’t there for him”. I was recently at a conference in Geneva when I suddenly got a phone call: “your mother is in a hospital for an emergency surgery”. I struggled with a question of whether to drop everything and catch the first flight back or trust my father’s assurances that everything is under control. Because, to add to the complication, I am their only child. 

How to care long-distance for your elderly parents? Each situation it unique and depends on specific family circumstances but Ana McGinley, an Australian social worker working with older adults, says the two common key words are communication and planning.

Expats say…

Todd: It’s where I am at the moment, and I’m struggling. Ironically, my story begins with my parents being the ones that moved away. Now that I’m married with my own child, I really wish things were different. Despite having the financial means to visit my parents literally anytime we want, it’s still a very time-consuming endeavor. The guilt really sets in when my wife and I start taking about vacations and such. It’s always helpful to learn that “you’re not alone” when it comes to feelings of guilt, desertion and isolation.  

Carol: My mother died in her sleep, out of the blue, at the age of 84. It was a true blessing that she bypassed the inevitable decline and all the problems associated with it. My dad lasted four years longer, and caring for him was a group effort among my siblings. Now, multiply this situation by millions. Today is not like in previous generations when 1) children didn’t move too far away from their parents; 2) people did not live longer then into their 80s. Now, there is a whole population of really old people, many with no one close by who loves them to care for them or at least visit. And a whole population of those in their 60s and 70s who worry about mom and/or dad in their own golden years.

Frances: My children witnessed my partner and I care for my mum. We lived in Wales, my mum in Canada. Mum passed away at the age of 98 and it was very difficult. There are so many things we would have liked to have done differently! Despite my being one of five siblings and living the furthest away, it was left almost entirely to us and our children. As a result, my children are planning their futures to accommodate us. I know plans may change and we hope never to be a burden. But we are trying to plan financially so we are not, even if one or both of us end up having accommodation of some type attached to their homes.

Tina (name changed for privacy protection): I left my country when my mother was 83. She was entirely independent, though living alone, and not even on any medication. Then, one afternoon last November, everything changed following a serious stroke. Having spent three months in hospital, she is now being discharged to a nursing home. I have a brother and sister living near her, but I feel sure there is resentment because I’m not there to share the burden of visiting, organization etc. And, of course, I worry. However, my mother never lost her mental capacity, can talk and use her right hand, and so I’m hoping to get her back onto Facebook and using Messenger so that we can keep in touch. We’ll see.

Communicating

When we were in Africa in the 80s, we had to wait several hours at a post office to get a phone connection to Poland. When my Mom was little, the waiting to get through to my grandfather on his cargo ship could take days. But, unlike our parents and grandparents, we live in the age of instant communication. I taught my parents to use Skype, so they could have regular chats with me and the kids when we were abroad. My US-resident friend told his mother, then 75 years old and living in Estonia, how to set up a Facebook account so she could follow his posts and chat or call him via Messenger. 

Did you know? A 2014 study found that “training older people to use social media improves cognitive capacity, increases a sense of self-competence and could have a beneficial overall impact on mental health and physical well-being”.

Instant communication helps keep in touch with ageing parents
Our age of instant communication makes it easy to keep in touch with far-away elderly parents.

Remembering their important days means a great deal to my parents. So, I keep an electronic calendar of their name-days, birthdays, their wedding anniversary, Mother’s and Father’s days and other such occasions. This way, I never forget to call, no matter where I am. And, since we all now live in different parts of the world, on the morning of each such day I send a reminder to my sons so they, too, can get in touch with their grandparents on these special days. 

Expats say…

Jane (name changed for privacy protection): My parents were obviously very upset when I decided to move to Italy. I made them a promise that I would call weekly and come home twice a year for 3 weeks each time. One of those visits was always for Christmas since it meant so much to my mother. I kept that promise until my mom died several years later. 

I had also hoped that I could train my parents to use the Internet, but their resistance to anything technical made it impossible. As a result, I wrote letters to them and included photographs. Sometimes it takes creativity. Besides letters and photographs, I would occasionally send flowers. Little things count. Although some wouldn’t agree, I believe you do the best you can for your parents without sacrificing your own life.

Offering Help

Some people suggest appointing a family manager or a domestic helper to look after your parents when you are away. But my advice would be to consider this carefully. In our case, any such proposal has been rejected. My parents are not used to having someone around to take care of their daily affairs for them, so they see it as an unwelcome intrusion into their everyday routine. They may fear that I consider them incapable of taking care of themselves. As long as help is not absolutely necessary, let your parents arrange their lives the way that doesn’t disrupt their comfort zone.

It is good though to keep in touch with someone living nearby who is close to your parents – your sibling, another family member, a neighbour perhaps. For me, this is my mother’s younger sister who lives in the same city. When in doubt, I can always call her to get a second account of what my parents tell me – like during that conference in Geneva when she assured me that I could stay. Or I can just ask her to go and check on them if I am worried. 

It is good to have someone who can keep an eye on your parents while you are away
It is good to have someone who can keep an eye on your parents while you are away.

As our parents age, health issues become common – and so are the costs of quality healthcare. It took me several years until my parents finally accepted my financial support, even though their pensions are rather modest. It is excellent if you can help financially – but if you do, it should be a continuous, regular commitment. Also, you need to offer it with empathy and tact. The process of aging often comes with a feeling of lower personal worth and a fear of becoming dependent. Your offer to help should in no way affect the dignity of your parents.

Expats say…

Jane: I lived in a large city about an hour and a half from my parents so saw them once a month, more or less. In 1999, I moved to Italy leaving behind two parents 80+ in fairly good health, and my two older brothers. The brother that lived closest couldn’t be counted on and the one who could help was five hours away. Dad died a year later, and mom wanted to stay in her home. I wasn’t comfortable with mom living alone so arrangements were made with her housecleaner, who she liked, to live downstairs rent-free and keep an eye on mom as well as get her into town when needed. It worked out beautifully. When my mother could no longer handle the stress of paying bills, I took over and did it all from abroad. I set up all the bills on auto pay and coordinated with the housecleaner to let me know on anything other than bills that arrived. She never fell behind again.

Anne (name changed for privacy protection): My parents passed away before we moved abroad – but my husband’s parents were still alive. A couple of years ago his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his dad became her carer. Then his dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and pretty soon needed full-time care himself. My husband went back to the UK to make the necessary arrangements, but it soon became apparent that the sheer cost of live-in help was too high to consider. So, we agreed that he would stay there, apart from short trips to Italy to get clothes etc. As he is their only child, there was no other option. He was caring for both parents until his dad died. It soon became apparent that other family members just expected him to stay on with his mum but, as she was otherwise healthy, that could mean years. He had no choice but to find a care home for her. I know he feels guilty and his family thinks that he abandoned her, but it was the only option. She needed full time supervision, so he wouldn’t have been able to work. And, since he had been out of the country for more than two years, he couldn’t even claim carers’ allowance. 

Planning, Just In Case

Some difficult planning discussions also need to be had. I have seen expats struggling with legal processes when their parents did not leave a will deciding on the family home ownership. People trying to close all financial commitments of their late parents but having no list of what these obligations actually were. Colleagues learning that they have to pay back their parents’ bank loans of which they had no idea. Make sure that you know about all these practicalities, or help your parents make the preparations they want.

Taking Care of Ourselves

But above all, stop feeling guilty about being away. Worrying about ageing parents is unavoidable. But if you are too hard on yourself, if you allow the distance to become a subconscious source of constant stress, it will have a negative effect on your own life. Parents want us to keep our lives moving forward. They don’t want to be a burden. Our decision to move abroad is always reversible – but giving up on life chances offered by expat careers is not. The best thing we can do is to take care of ourselves and share our successes with the parents to keep their spirits up.

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