Waiting at London Heathrow airport for our suitcases last week, another mother doing the same started chatting to me. We were both expats living in Beijing, visiting family for the summer. This was her second trip back this year, here to visit her parents. She explained how she used to come back every two years, spending every other summer traveling around Asia. "When I came back in January, I was shocked by how old and frail my parents had become," she said. "For the first time since I’ve been an expat, I felt guilt about being so far away from them."
When you don’t see your parents for months or years at a time, you tend to notice changes in them that others don’t. You don’t have the benefit of watching the gradual progression of age and how it’s affecting them. So it can be a shock when you make that trip home and realize that their health, and their ability to cope, has deteriorated. Tell-tale signs are often there. The house may not be as spick and span as it used to be, the garden unusually unkempt. Maybe your parents used to be quite active doing sports, walking, taking trips. Now it seems they prefer to stay home more. Even just every day stuff, like getting around the house and up the stairs, can suddenly appear to be a struggle.
Living abroad as an expat offers many unique experiences, but being so far away from home comes with its own set of hurdles, especially when dealing with the declining health of loved ones. As your parents age, health issues are common and living overseas can make it difficult to help as needed. Elderly parents are very reluctant to complain or to admit that they are finding things difficult. Even if you are in regular e-mail or Skype contact, this won’t give you the real and bigger picture.
The conversation with the lady at the airport made me look closely at my own parents. Fortunately, they’re both in fine fettle right now, but did I really think they would stay the same until we had decided we were ready to return home for good? As an expat you can get so caught up in the whole process and adventure you’re on that you forget the process of life, which includes your parents aging and possibly becoming ill whilst you’re away. People are living longer today, and as a result the chance of them developing a long-term health condition is increasing.
If you have siblings or other family that live close to your parents, that takes the pressure off you, but can add to the guilt that you’re not there to "do your bit". If you’re an only child, then it’s important to build up a local network of people who can be there to help your parents. If you’re planning on being abroad for many years, it’s never too early to start having those conversations with your parents. Decisions on their care in the coming years need to be made together.
I miss my parents very much, but I wouldn’t say I feel guilty being away from them. That they are so far away from their grandchildren is something I sometimes struggle with, but they have always been so supportive of our decision to live abroad. Although this may sound harsh to some, my view is that they have had their lives and are settled. It is now our time to live ours in a way that best suits us and our children. Life is short, but it is also so unpredictable and I cannot change the outcome of my aging parents. Giving up a once in a lifetime chance is irreversible, taking that chance is not.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.