Expat Advice | Living abroad and looking after elderly parents

From a distance: 6 tips for expats with ageing parents

Posted on July 3, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
Couple relaxing on a bench

A significant number of British over 50s either work abroad, or live overseas for part of the year. This can be challenging when you have ageing parents for a variety of reasons, especially health-related ones.

How do you cope if you are one of those people living overseas? I looked into the issue and came up with some top tips that should help alleviate stress and relieve the inevitable feelings of guilt that come with distance.

Tip 1 – Use technology

If they’re not already familiar then teach parents to use a computer and how to make Skype calls. This is one of the easiest ways of keeping in touch. It also allows the use of video so that you can see each other. This is enormously reassuring for both parties involved: you can gauge how healthy an ageing parent appears to be, and they can also see that you’re well, which puts their minds at rest. It’s easy to forget that our parents will always feel the same duty of care for us as they did when we were children, and that they probably worry as much about us, as we do about them.

It’s true that using Skype may seem daunting for some but once this technology is mastered it’s surprising the number of older people who  love using it. Encourage them to take classes; Age UK and local libraries can help with finding classes. This is also a way of encouraging them socialise with others suggests Australian social worker Ann McGinley, who has extensive experience of providing care over distance.

Tip 2 – Send post

Birthday cards, postcards and parcels are all ways of keeping in touch that mean a great deal to the elderly. These more physical forms of communication were highly prized before the age of email and so those who grew up in an era when receiving something through the post was special and exciting will appreciate hearing the postman at the door. Indeed, the postman can be an important lifeline for some elderly people, because he or she is someone to say hello to, and they are another person checking in.

Tip 3 – Organise a holiday

Spending time together can depend on the extent of the distance you live apart, for example the UK to Australia is a considerable distance and expense. One solution  could be to pick a mid-way point to reduce the cost on both sides.


Family walking together in a marina

Tip 4 – Appoint a family manager

Delegating one family member—the most practical one preferably– to organise family communications and get-togethers should mean that they are more likely to actually happen. Similarly, the same person could be asked to take responsibility for circulating photographs and family news. This person is also an important liaison point for the overseas members and you may have to rely on them for accurate and up-to-date information about parents’ health, so don’t forget to treat them nicely!

Tip 5 – Help parents to plan

Encourage parents to look to the future and move to a suitably sized home that fits their needs and physical capacity before such a move is forced on them. This is something that Diane Pope of Shears Home Support and Relocation Services feels is very important. She also advises expats to be prepared before having to navigate the care system after an emergency has occurred.

Make sure that Wills are up-to-date and that other legal arrangements have been discussed. For example, who should be given power of attorney should a parent develop dementia? Ensuring that parents have made the arrangements they want, while they still can, is important, this difficult but essential conversation includes discussing end-of-life choices, living wills and funeral arrangements.

Tip 6 – Stay in the loop

Research the fastest routes home so that you’re prepared should a parent become seriously unwell. Keep funds available for this as part of your planning. If you have to return to your home overseas while a parent is hospitalised or under some other form of care, insist that you are kept in the loop by all the agencies involved. You will probably need to plan other trips and organise your work schedule around visits, so being kept updated about the prognosis for a parent’s health is an essential part of your preparation.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. Feeling concern for an ageing parent is inevitable, but make sure you maintain a sensible perspective on your feelings and keep your own life moving forward. Don’t allow the distance to become an unconscious source of stress. Parents don’t want to be burden: keep their spirits up by taking care of yourself and sharing your happy moments with them.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.