Expat guide to caring for elderly parents

16 June 2022

Even under the best of circumstances, caring for elderly parents is a challenging task. If you have been offered or are on an expat assignment that adds thousands of miles, long working hours and loss of community into the mix, it can become overwhelming. 

Rest assured, although difficult, with the right approach long distance care giving is possible and can be a mutually rewarding experience:  

Begin your long-distance care giving plan by understanding your parents' needs. If you have not left on expat assignment, this can be done in person. If you are already on assignment it may need to be conducted remotely or on a visit home.

Sometimes their requirements for extra support will be obvious, prompted by illness, a fall or confusion. This is not always the case though; you may need to watch for more subtle indications that they need more help. Either way try to keep your parents involved in any assessment of their requirements, so they have some agency over what happens while you are away.

  • Mobility
  • Money matters
  • Mental health
  • Driving
  • Medication
  • Life at home

Encourage your parents to share any struggles they might be having in any of these areas. Remember, these may be difficult topics for your parents to discuss. Try to put their minds at ease by reassuring them that you want them to have the best quality of life while you are overseas.  

You will not be able to do everything for your parents, especially from abroad. Nobody can. Try to focus on what you can do and see if other family or professionals can help with the balance. To make long distance care giving less stressful, try to focus on offering supports that align with your natural strengths. If you are naturally organised, maybe you could help your parents manage their appointment calendar and remember medication? Are you good with finances? Could you help them to pay bills or find better deals for utilities?
If you are fortunate enough to have other family close to your parents, it is a good idea to hold a family meeting either in person or remotely. Use the meeting to discuss who might be able to provide support. 
If there are long standing resentments or unresolved issues from your past, finding closure may ease any dummy guilt associated with caring for your elderly parents from abroad. If the problems remain raw or painful, it might be a good idea to see a counsellor or therapist together for some professional support. 
Try to keep love over obligation as the primary motivation for caring for your parents while you are on assignment. Viewing it this way can lead to it being a positive experience for you both. As well as the practical day to day elements of care giving, try to spend some time discussing favourite memories or planning activities when you are visiting home. 
Speaking of which, try to arrange visits home to punctuate your time overseas. Not only will this give your parents something to look forward to while you are away, it will also enable you to evaluate how well the supports put in place are working.
It is essential to have a plan in case your parents find themselves in an emergency while you are on expat assignment. This can range from a list of family and friends that they can call to a 24 hour monitoring system they can contact at the press of a button in a medical emergency. 
Create a schedule to call or contact your parents. This could be through a traditional phone call if that is what they feel most comfortable with. If they are more tech savvy, video calls work really well. Try to call at a time when you are relaxed and can fill them in on your life overseas as well as checking in with them.
It is highly likely that there will be periods of time during your assignment where you will not be able to give your parents the time you would like to. It is natural to feel guilty about this. Take time to acknowledge your feelings. Without acknowledgement it is easy for guilt to become overwhelming. Understand that while you may wish to do more all the time, you are only one person capable of so much.  
Although dummy self-care can feel like the last thing on your mind when juggling the challenges of expat life and long distance caregiving, it is vitally important. “You cannot pour from an empty cup” so taking care of yourself is an essential part of success in both areas of your life. Carve out some time for rest, doing something you love and exercise.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, check if your international health insurance plan has an dummy expat assistance programme. You may be able to access professional support to discuss the difficulties you have.