Photo: Zoran Pucarevic/Shutterstock

On Balancing Life Abroad and Aging Parents Back Home

by Cathy Brown Apr 11, 2017

SINCE I WAS a child I’ve always been fairly carefree, not a worry in the world. As an adult and mother I’ve unapologetically moved myself and my three kids halfway around the world from Michigan to Patagonia.

But one thing that has come up that I’ve needed to make amends with recently: Feeling like I’m abandoning my (self-imposed) responsibilities when it comes to taking care of my aging parents back in the states. While I keep up on Skype and Facebook on an almost daily basis, it’s my sister and brother who are there when my dad had to be admitted to the hospital for not keeping his diabetes in check. It’s them who bring my parents where they need to go when their car is in the shop.

My mind is inundated with thoughts. Am I wasting the precious little time I may have to spend with my parents selfishly doing my own thing 10,000 kilometers away? Will I regret this later in my life? I hate feelings of regret. Is fresh glacial water and killer views and a real sense of safety and community worth not repaying my parents for how they took care of me earlier in life?

While I never cared before what my very conservative siblings thought of me and my life decisions, I have found myself not enjoying the underlying shame I feel when comments are made about me just romping around carelessly in the mountains while they hold down the fort ‘back home’. What they still don’t get is that Patagonia has become my home. I’m not off on vacation, I have set up my life here for many reasons, the main one being that I feel strongly that this is a healthy, beautiful place to raise my children. I’m not only in the part of life where I have to take care of parents, but I also have to balance doing what’s best for my own children.

Feelings of guilt and regret seem to be common in all caregiver stories, but they are themes that dominate the experiences of long-distance caregivers. A surprising number of distant caregivers — nearly 30 percent in one study — feel so inadequate that they won’t even identify themselves as caregivers. I feel that. While my parents know that I care, while I am emotionally present and there with them through anything that may come up, it doesn’t seem enough.

Would my parents even want me to give up a life they know I’m incredibly happy in to go back and take care of them? Deep down, I doubt it. So I asked. As parents, they genuinely enjoy seeing their daughter living life to the fullest, raising their wild and free little grandkids in a pristine, safe place very connected to nature. It’s clear that I give them a great sense of pride from my unconventional decisions to make my life full of adventures. As my dad put it, I’m doing exactly “what he never had the balls to do”.

It seems like my brother, who makes a huge income but is busy as can be, is content to be the one writing checks if it comes to that. My sister is a “doer”, flitting about here and there, making her presence known. Selfish as it may come across, it seems like my role left is to be emotional support how I can and to continue being a point of pride and happiness for my mom and dad. They live vicariously through me and my adventures, they see the world through me and my work as a travel writer, and to quit that to arrange my life around caretaking them in person is not something that they want.

I don’t have this all figured out and I imagine it will be something that I continue to grapple with the older my parents get. But for now, living a life that makes my parents proud seems to be a valid way of taking care of them — even if my brother and sister may not agree.

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