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 in his life. 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. 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 families through the daily ups and downs of expat life, that we dread a phone call in the middle of it all, saying 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 here 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 who, when asked how they are, sigh and say,” I’m feeling stressed because my mom is ill and my dad can’t cope, and I don’t know what to do.” As more parents live longer and more adult children relocate for work and other reasons, the number of long-distance caregivers continues to grow.
When it comes to caring for our ageing parents and loved ones, many of us struggle with feelings of guilt, and those feelings can be amplified by distance. You constantly ask yourself, “Am I visiting enough? Should I call more? Am I doing enough?” Even under the best of circumstances, caregiving of our ageing parents is often accompanied by a sense of guilt, and being far away just intensifies those feelings. Jill Martinelli, LCSW and Senior Care Adviser at Care.com, states: “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.
I have found some practical guidance on-line that can help to face and cope with caring for your parents from a distance. You can help with important tasks, like coordinating care, addressing medical and financial issues, and assessing living conditions. 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 as they age. 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 to keep in touch.
If at all possible, create a safety net and support system for both your family at home as well as 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 you and your family are dealing with all of this please 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 both to them and to you.
I know that this can be a difficult and trying time for you, but try to reflect on a Golden Rule and treat your parent as you’d like to be treated, with love and compassion – this can also be a powerful example for your own children.
Here is a great link that will help you should you find yourself as a long- distance caregiver.
Written with love by: Barbara-Anne Puren
Photos courtesy of Pixabay:
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