It began as an ordinary day and as it always is with life, I had no idea that my world was about to be turned upside down. It was around 3 in the afternoon; I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. On answering my aunt’s voice on the other side of the line said, “your father has died!” I literally fell off my chair. How did this happen? Why? He wasn’t sick a day. He was a strong and capable 70-year-old man, he loved walking, he was healthy… I struggled to come to terms with it. Now many years later, I have a far better understanding of the ebb and flow of life and death but what I will always regret is that I last saw my dad two years before he died. In those two years, we spoke on the phone almost every day, but that’s not the same thing as seeing one another. I was only a 7-hour drive away! If only I’d known, I would have done things differently, I would have planned, I would have travelled down to visit….
As an expat, I’m sure that this resonates with you. We are so busy being parents and navigating our children through the daily ups and downs of expat life that it’s bound to happen, while there in the middle of it all, you get the phone call that you’ve been dreading. The phone call to say that your dad has had a stroke, or that your mom has fallen and broken her hip…. It’s then that the precious friendships formed the place you now call “home” come to the fore and cocoon you and your family. I honestly feel that as expats; while living abroad, close friends almost take the place of family, your friends become aunts and uncles to your children, your friends’ children begin to feel like your children’s cousins. All necessary and treasured bonds that we form to survive and thrive in this “home away from home” life.
All too often we see the anxiety of a fellow parent outside school, whom when asked how they are, sigh and say,” I’m feeling stressed because my mom back at home is ill and my dad can’t cope, and I don’t know what to do.” As more parents live longer lives and more adult children seem to relocate for work and other reasons, unfortunately, the number of long-distance caregivers continues to grow.
When it comes to caring for our aging parents and loved ones, many of us struggle with feelings of guilt, and those feelings can be amplified by distance. You find that you constantly ask yourself, “Am I visiting enough? Should I call more? Am I doing enough?” Even under the best of circumstances, care giving of our aging parents is often accompanied by a deep sense of guilt and being far away only intensifies those feelings. Jill Martinelli, LCSW and Senior Care Advisor at Care.com states: “However, it’s important to understand that it’s okay to have these feelings; it’s how you address feelings of guilt that will impact your experience as a caregiver.”
Dr. Alexis Abramson, an expert on aging, speaker and author of several books including The Caregivers Survival Handbook, Home Safety for Seniors and The 55+ Fact Book, says that caregiver guilt is not only common, but it is extremely destructive, making an already stressful situation even more challenging. It can make you feel tired, weak and immobile, he explains, which in turn makes you less effective and ultimately unhappy. That being said, I have found some practical guidance online that can help to face and cope with caring for your parents from a distance. You can find ways to coordinate care, address medical and financial issues, and assess living conditions, among other important jobs. You don’t have to feel helpless because you’re not close by; you can find ways to help and be an active presence in the life of your parents.
You may not be able to visit your loved one regularly, but call, arrange a video chat, write or find other personal ways to show you care and keep in touch. If at all possible, create a safety net and support system for both your family at home and abroad. Whether you plan with other family members, or connect with a Geriatric Care Manager, a religious organization, a nice neighbour or a senior care adviser, there are ways to provide additional care for a loved one from a distance and gain peace of mind. Find helpful resources such as meal delivery programmes, community outreach, senior centres and public services.
While dealing with all of this, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Talk with close friends, siblings and other family members. Remember that it’s okay to ask for help from that precious circle of expat friends, they know first-hand what you are going through. While you may not be able to be there for your elderly loved ones physically, recognise that what you can do from a distance can and does make a difference. If possible, work with your parent to identify what you can and cannot do and find ways to fill the gaps that matter most to mom or dad. Hiring a senior caregiver who visits with them every other day can make a real difference to both them and you.
During this trying time it’s a good idea to reflect on the Golden Rule and treat your parent as you’d like to be treated, with love and compassion, which can also be a powerful example for your own children.
Here is a great link that will help you should you find yourself having to navigate this life as a long- distance caregiver.
Written with love by Barbara-Anne Puren
Photos from Pixabay: congerdesign Pixabay, steve buissinne, stock snap, geralt, sabine van erp, ellen26, quimono, pasja1000