Living the expat life when your parents, at home, need you can take its toll.
ON.WSJ.COM|由 JENNIFER LANG 上傳
By JENNIFER LANGJun 29, 2016 6:53 am ET
When my family and I moved from White Plains, New York to Raanana, Israel in 2011, my then 74-year-old father had recently been diagnosed with dementia. It was a toss-up as to what weighed more—my mind or my heart. How often would I be able to hop on a plane and fly more than 7,000 miles to San Francisco when I was still raising children?
When, two years later, the diagnosis changed to early Alzheimer’s, I flew back to make sure paperwork and finances were in order and visit memory care facilities—just in case, for later. Eighteen months passed. He lost all short-term memory. I returned home to propose to my mother, one year younger but in good health and now the sole decision-maker for both of them, to move to Israel so my brother, also living here, and I could help in the years to come.
This past fall, during their most recent trip to Israel, the four of us sat around my backyard table with a Chicago-based social worker who runs a U.S. and Israel-based business called Elder Options. We hired them to help facilitate the conversation: where my parents should live and how we can help from afar. The company offered to provide anything from a la carte to full service, depending on our needs.
My brother and I have agreed to coordinate and stagger our visits; we have met and have the contact information for the caregivers; we email and call regularly. Other than that, little is in our control.
Our experience made me wonder how other expats deal with elderly parents while overseas.
Sue Flamm moved from Armonk, N.Y., to Valencia, Spain almost seven years ago. Both her parents suffer from different types of dementia: her mother, 87, with early Alzheimer’s, and her father, 92, with Lewy Body Dementia. A yoga instructor, Ms. Flamm reserves December and July to visit them. When apart, she uses Skype or FaceTime to connect with them daily between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. her time, which is 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. theirs. She takes screen shots and keeps them on her computer so she can look at them often.
Sometimes she only speaks with one of them, other times, both; conversations are short, but even a few minutes make a difference. She might play games with her mother or ask her daughter to practice piano and sing while her parents listen. Ms. Flamm and her brother, who lives 75 minutes away in Connecticut, got them Medicaid and hired aides, who she checks in with daily, to honor their wish and keep them home.
For only child Christine Cantera, living the expat life takes its toll. Now 45, Ms. Cantera has been living abroad for 14 years. Originally from Ocean City, N.J. and now in Europe—alternating between Montpellier, France and Rome, Italy—she only sees her parents, both 72, every two to three years.
Before she left, she made sure they each wrote their wills and living wills, and all legal paperwork, knowing some issues would be impossible to decide or discuss in an emergency from thousands of miles away. She said by email: “I insist on honesty, that they tell me if and when to come home for any reason, including the deaths of my grandparents or other relatives. I can be there within 24 hours.” Ms. Cantera checks in separately with her mother, who has chronic health problems, and then her father.
Forty-six-year-old Pamela Strong, also an only child, works in international development for an American NGO in Cairo, halfway across the world from her parents in Auburn, Washington. Her father, 71, and mother, 83, have had decades to adjust. Since serving in the Peace Corps in 1992, Ms. Strong has moved around: Uzbekistan, U.S., Armenia, U.S., Indonesia, Guatemala, Egypt. Like Ms. Flamm, they get on Skype regularly, which means a lot to her parents because as they age, they’re growing more isolated, getting out less.
She has also researched caregivers for the time when, eventually, her father will need help caring for her mother, who is less well, since he makes their meals, helps her get exercise, gets her in and out of bed, administers her medications, and drives everywhere, including to doctor appointments. Ms. Strong looks for opportunities to combine work travel with getting home to reduce costs. Now that she’s more established cost is less an issue than negotiating time off work. She sees her parents once or twice a year.
Cheryl Schwarz, 55, left Cape Town, South Africa 28 years ago and now lives in Piedmont, California with her husband and three children. She only sees her parents, both turning 87 this year, once annually. Even though she has siblings, they, too, live abroad—an older sister in Los Angeles and younger brother in Israel. Every time she calls her parents, which is often, they’re happy to know she’s thinking of them.
In an email, Ms. Schwarz wrote: “My siblings and I spread out our visits to give them more time with each of us; I usually go without my husband and kids to focus on and spend quality time with them. The three of us tried to convince them to move closer to one of us but finally understood they’re content where they are with their friends and community.” The result was that the family decided that “we need to respect their wishes and try not to worry too much since there’s not much we can do to change the situation”.
As much as my mother appreciated my offer to move closer to my brother and me, they opted to stay stateside. Like Ms. Schwarz, I understand they’re where they want to be, the only place they’ve ever known. When, almost 30 years ago, I first uprooted in my early twenties to work in Paris, my parents supported me unconditionally just as I need to support their decision to stay put—at home—now.