Aging parents and expatriation: How to balance parents’ needs and your dreams

Published 2020-01-17 10:46

For many expats, the excitement of moving to a new country and upgrading our career is lessened by the concern for the family we leave behind — especially aging parents who are more likely to be dependent on us. So how can we chase our expatriation dream while making sure our aging parents receive the love and support they deserve? I have been an expat since 2007 and lucky enough to have self-sufficient and healthy parents. However, since I am planning to continue my expatriation journey, I am continuously thinking of better ways to strengthen my relationship with my parents in spite of the physical distance between us and see to it that the older they grow, the more care and comfort they will get.

Stay in touch

When we leave a place, we tend to give the promise to “stay in touch.” However, as soon as the new reality hits, this promise is most often broken than kept. Indeed, quality communication requires time, dedication, and organisation, in spite of technology helping us overcome the barriers of distance easier than ever. Before taking off to your new destination, make arrangements with your parents regarding how often you will call each other and what is the best time of the day to catch up. Also, it is essential to make the most of your conversations, and not avoid bringing to the surface crucial matters such as finances, healthcare, and your next holidays together. Besides, if you have children, make sure the relationship between them and their grandparents is also maintained and cultivated through Skype, pictures, and letters with drawings. Of course, there’s nothing more uplifting than spontaneous rings and holiday postcards!

Look forward to together time

Depending on how far your expat country is from home, it is easier or more complicated to visit your parents as often as you would like. For example, my parents live in Greece, but four out of my five host countries have been outside Europe, making the trip back home costly, lengthy, and often impractical. However, there are several ways to make things work — my favourite practices are organising a holiday mid-way, so both parties can share the distance and costs, or pitching in to help the parents with the expenses of travelling to the host country of their children. The latter is also an excellent bonding technique, as you will be able to include your parents in your new life, show them your favourite coffee shop, introduce them to the culture you are trying to adapt to, share some of your favourite experiences, and even get the chance to whine about the difficulties you go through and unload. 

Ask for help

When you are miles away, it is virtually impossible to take care of everything alone, no matter how much you are willing to sacrifice. I am lucky enough to have a sister, who also lives far away from our parents (i.e., the US), but leads a stable life that allows her to plan extended visits to our family once a year and help them with urgent expenses such as house repairs. Ideally, you want to have a responsible and practical person close to your parents to rely on them about giving you updates on their health, unusual behaviours, and everyday life — someone you feel comfortable to ask a favour from, and your parents have a good relationship with. In any case, make sure that you show appreciation to this friend, neighbour, or family member who has volunteered to be your trusted person and make your life easier. 

Talk about the future

Even the most supportive parents, who have always encouraged you to follow your heart and travel, hurt when you are far away. A great way to reduce sorrow is to help them adapt to life without you. In the same way you need support during your adaptation period in your host country, they need assistance to cope with your absence. First, keep discussions about the (near and distant) future going: Is it a good idea to continue living in a humongous home just the two of them? Is it maybe time for them to enjoy some travelling? What type of medical care are they wishing to receive towards the end of life? 

Some of these topics are tough, and our coping mechanisms tend to block them. However, it is in everyone’s interest to get a clear picture while parents can reason and are capable of making their wishes known. To smoothen the impact of your absence, inspire them to update their social network through community work, volunteering, and sports. Since my sister and I moved abroad, my parents decided to swap the capital city with a small, seaside town. They have made new friends of the same age group, love walking by the sea in the mornings, and enjoy hosting guests on the weekends. My parents realised soon enough that it was pointless to hold onto their life with us when we were gone — and this is the best gift they could have given my sister and me. 

Create an emergency plan

Expat life comes with a ton of precious experiences and remarkable career development. But being far away from home and aging parents is a whole different story, unique to every expat individual and family. The older our parents get, the more memories we want to create with them, and time becomes tangible. Thinking about a parent’s illness or even loss is terrifying and emotionally devastating — even more so when we are abroad and feelings of guilt interfere with our grieving. 

Chineze from Nigeria lives with her husband and baby in Rwanda, and her parents are in their early 60s. Even though she communicates with them frequently via WhatsApp and they are supporting her decision to live abroad, she feels guilty and misses them terribly. “I'm most worried they won't love me like they used to when I was close by. I'm worried that if any emergency needs my presence, I would not be available to help out,” she says.

Every expat should have a plan in place in case of deteriorating health or death. An emergency trip abroad might be catastrophic for your finances, so it should be budgeted in advance. To be in control, receive frequent updates on your parents’ health from their physicians and arrange responsibilities among your siblings. If you are an only child, identify a few people who can take action in an emergency until your arrival. A sudden trip back home will also affect your professional duties, so discuss the possibility of being called back home on short notice with your employer and ask to know about company policies and benefits in such a case.