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Ageing Abroad – When The Past Bites Back

Ageing abroad is a series created to celebrate Seniors Week in Tasmania. It aims at underlining the challenges and rewards faced by people living abroad as they get older.
All the individuals featured in this series are fictitious but their stories are inspired by true people. I wish to thank Hans Schmid and Margaret Eldridge for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and experience with me.

Irena came to Australia with her husband in 1950.

She was 22, pregnant with her first child.  Ageing Abroad

She left behind her country in ruins after WWII.

She wanted to forget what she had seen and endured: years of privation, horror scenes – the shooting of her neighbours in the street while she was watching terrorised behind her bedroom window, the loss of her family home bombarded the night her mum decided to take refuge with the children in an underground shelter.

Most of all, she wanted to forget what happened when she went outside one evening to collect a few logs for the fire and met 3 drunk soldiers… She never told anyone.

When she arrived in Tasmania, she had no time to catch her breath. She threw herself into work: learning the language, finding a house, preparing everything for the baby, getting used to the climate, running the household with the meagre salary her husband managed to earn at the time.

There was so much to learn, to focus on, to process just to organise a simple life. She would crawl in bed each night and sleep straight away without any dreams. She was too tired to think.

In this new country, she could start afresh.

Nobody – but her husband – knew her.

Nobody had a clue about where she came from: her parents, her upbringing, her values.

Having to express herself in another language gave her a new identity. She felt different. Her life was so much at odds with all she had experienced before that many of her memories seemed unreal.

She gave birth to 5 more children and sought some sewing work to augment their savings. Her husband built their house, she took care of the garden.
The kids grew up and all studied at university. Irena is proud. She never got a degree. Impossible during the war.
Only after 25 years could she afford a holiday back to her home country!

Time passed by. Her children all married and welcomed their own off-spring. Some live nearby, others on the mainland. One even returned to settle back in Irena’s home country.

When the kids left home, Irena was happy to give a hand and look after the grandchildren. But when she turned 75, she began to suffer severe mobility problems and had to slow down.

Five years ago, she lost her husband. That was a hard blow after 62 years of marriage.

At 88, Irena now lives alone in a cosy flat with a view of the river.
‘I’m lucky to be here’ she reflects. ‘When I see the situation in my home country today, I’m grateful to live in Australia even if it was so hard when I came.’

But as she leans powerless towards the dusk of her life, the loss of her husband, the loss of her usual occupations and the loss of her physical abilities start to take their toll.

The compounding effect of those losses triggers ancient memories.

While she remains seated all day, her mind wanders.

In those hours that now seem to stretch endlessly, she has time. Time to think.

Too much time to think and too many things to think about.

She gets flashbacks of the past, images of blood, destruction and despair.
The death of her husband reminded her of the neighbours’ bodies. The smell of death is lurking.

She’s frightened. She wants to put the TV on. The radio as well.
Noise. More noise and distraction.

But it doesn’t go away. It creeps up on her at night.

She gets sweaty palms and she struggles to breathe calmly. Her heart is pounding, her mouth dry. She’s even afraid to sleep…

Is Irena suffering from a delayed onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or bouts of unresolved grief accumulated over the years?

She’s been several times to her doctor but could never really open up.

The consultation lasts between 15 and 25 minutes. She struggles to find the right words. Expressing nuances and subtlety in another language, even when she’s been living here for decades, is still a challenge.

She’s impressed by the doctor, an authority figure reminding her of her dad. She often regrets: she should have changed GP years ago…

And even if she tries to explain, will he understand? Those events happened so long ago!
Maybe he’ll think she’s losing her mind. Irena knows she’s not crazy.
What if he gives her some tranquilizers? She is reluctant to depend on more medication.

Sometimes she’d like to share with her daughter, the youngest one who is also the closest.
But she’s so busy with her 3 children. She has very little time to come home for a cup of tea, let alone for a lengthy conversation.

And there are things Irena can’t tell her. She’s too ashamed.

Irena used to have a close friend, Magda, who came from the same country but a different region. They enjoyed talking with each other. Sometimes only a word was enough to bring back childhood memories. They didn’t need to provide explanations, they simply could both relate.

Alas, Magda suddenly passed away last year. Irena was devastated.

She wishes she’d been closer to her sister who stayed put. But they’ve been separated for so long and had such different lives that they feel like strangers.

Her sister never forgave her for the fact that she was left to take care on her own for their ageing parents.

As Irena is getting older, she finds herself more and more isolated.

Had she remained in her home country, she’d be more likely to find help because her case including her youth traumas wouldn’t have been so particular.

But what if there was a place to talk in a meaningful way for people born abroad? People whose story is unique but who faced a common experience: expatriation.

What if there was a way to be heard and to get support?

At Expatriate Connection, we offer a peer support group for Seniors and we’ll hold a presentation at Women’s Health Tasmania in Hobart on Thursday October 13th at 10 am.

There’s a lot at stake.

Adults [as opposed to children] no longer need to repress their feelings. But if they do, the price they pay is high. Either they ruin their own health or they make others foot the bill.’
Psychologist Alice Miller in her book ‘The body never lies’

Now over to you, what would you say? What would be helpful?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

Trailing Spouse – Why It’s Harder To Tell Your Truth

7:30 am – A typical morning in your expat family

‘Mum, where is my lunch box?’
    trailing spouse
‘Mum, I can’t find my soccer gear’

‘Mum, did you sign the form for our theatre excursion today?’ 

‘Mum, when is Dad coming back from his business trip?’


8:15 am – ‘Hurry up, kids. Time to go!’

9:00 am – You’re back home after school drop off.             

The flat is spacious. You’re lucky, you have a view on the lake.
To break the now deafening silence after the stormy morning, you put the TV on.

Breaking news: another terrorist attack – 52 killed.

You wince while images of blood, despair and destruction succeed each other.

‘Oh my God!’

You shake your head. You can’t even start to imagine what it would feel like to go through such a trauma.

In a glance, you look around and embrace the beautiful location, the pictures of your smiling children on the wall, your comfortable lifestyle.

No doubt. You’re privileged.

Your family is in good health, you have no money problems, food on the table and a roof above your head.

So how could you dare? How could you dare to tell your truth?

How could you dare to say that you’re hurting. 

That the pain is deep and excruciating at times.

That you’re anxious, lonely and frustrated.

That you can’t sleep.

The truth is : although you agreed to move here and to follow your partner, you’re highly stressed and ultimately unhappy!

This makes you feel ashamed and guilty.

It’s incredibly difficult to admit. First and foremost to yourself. Let alone to others!

That’s why you brush it off. You reason yourself out. You lie…

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A terrorist attack, an incurable illness, a divorce: those are recognized traumas.

Everybody understands. Everybody gets it. Straight away.

But in your life, there is no such thing: your partner only got a promotion abroad!

How could THIS be a trauma?  Isn’t that going overboard?

Trauma in our collective psyche tends to be something big like an earthquake, the loss of a loved one, even a redundancy.

But what we’re talking about here – moving abroad – is a blessing!

All your friends rave about the wonderful adventure you’ve embarked on and how lucky you are.

And you are indeed, but…Image result for paragraph separator

Let’s take a closer look at what trauma means.  

The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines trauma as ‘an injury (as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent’ and as ‘a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury.’

Which means that the trauma is not defined by the event but the consequences it has on the person.

As mentioned in ‘Coping With Trauma’ a book by Dr Jon Allen combining years of research teaching and experience treating trauma survivors, trauma is ‘in the eye of the beholder’.

There are 2 parts to a traumatic experience: the objective part and the subjective part.

The objective part refers to the event itself that may cause death or serious injury to you or others. This is what we usually focus on (natural disasters, war scenes, murder, rape).

But it is the SUBJECTIVE experience of the OBJECTIVE event that constitutes the trauma.

Jon Allen

In other words, a trauma is defined by the effects it triggers in you.

As underlines Allen, ‘objectivity and subjectivity don’t always match. You can be traumatized by someone with a fake gun’.

Psychologically the bottom line of trauma is overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness.

Jon Allen

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It’s ‘overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness’ that you may experience when you move abroad.

Because you feel so awkward, so incompetent, so dumb not being able to communicate with the local people after three years living here.

Because you’re not contributing financially to your household. You’re officially considered as dependent. It’s written on your visa.

Because you feel so lonely. Even when you smile to random people in the street, you get cold looks making you feel like you really don’t belong.

Because you’re shocked that your partner doesn’t want to listen when you try to open up.  

Because you’ve been brutally stripped of a fundamental right: the ability to live in a place in your own right. If you were not in this relationship, you would be kicked out of the country.

Because nobody can pronounce your name properly.

Because you suffer from the change in climate.

Because it’s not what and how you thought it would be.

Because all of the above (and even more) is adding up, day after day and has a compounding effect.

The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing ; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife … is bound to be noticed.

Soren Kierkegaard

The trauma is invisible. It comes from things you would never have imagined.

More often than not, as a trailing spouse or — more elegantly said — as an accompanying partner, you’re traumatized because you put yourself in that situation.  You think that you should take responsibility for it and you end up blaming yourself for not being happy.

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Ironically enough, the particularity of trauma is dissociation.

You want to avoid thinking about it. You want to forget about it.

But to heal, you need to acknowledge it. You need to face it. You need to be heard and validated.

Giving you permission to grieve, to vent, to complain, cringe and cry, that would bring relief.

I have created a safe space to do just that. Without fear of being judged or fixed. A safe place where you can be just as you are. Where you don’t need to pretend. A place to be yourself.

Will you join us? 

Find more details about this online support group program called ‘Unpack Your Bags‘. 

We look forward to welcoming you.


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

Expats and Olympic Games – Who Are You Rooting For?

The Olympic Games are in full swing.   More than 11,000 athletes coming from 206 countries are competing during 17 days across 306 events featuring 28 sports. Whether it is for soccer, cycling, swimming, rowing, gymnastics, golf or athletics, more than 500 000 people travelled to attend in person while 3.6 billion people are expected […]

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Divorce Abroad – 3 Essential Things You Need To Know For Your Kids

Stella is anxious. Her mum, Janet, is not the same any more. Since last week, she has lost her smile. Her eyes are red and swollen, her face is bleak. She often withdraws in her room. What’s happening? She doesn’t want to talk. Dad is avoiding them, leaving early and coming back late, when Stella’s […]

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Six Disturbing Experiences When Going Back Home For A Holiday

It’s been a while since you’ve set foot in your home country but this year, you’re going back. For a holiday. Three weeks of jam packed program trying to optimize everything and please everyone: spending an equal number of days in each family, organizing a big party with your friends and sprinkling visits to some […]

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Losing A Home – The Impact On Your Third Culture Kid (And How To Handle It)

Ben was 8 years old when he left the country where he’d spent all his childhood.   ‘Daddy’s got a promotion overseas and says he can’t refuse it’, explained Ben to his teacher when he got the news. Originally the family was supposed to live abroad for 3 years and come back. The move was […]

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Emotional Abuse In Expat Couples – 4 Essential Steps To Deal With It

Sophie sits on the couch, her empty gaze staring at the salon table in front of her. Jack, her husband arrived from work and they’ve just had an argument. It’s become more and more frequent since they moved to this new country, a year ago. Sophie left her job to follow Jack when he got a promotion… […]

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Repatriation With Children – How To Be Sure You’re Doing The Right Thing

“Going back ‘home’? Are you serious?” Jonathan’s eyes bulge out of his head. He’s 13. When his family moved abroad, he was 8. “I don’t want to leave my friends! I don’t know anyone back there. Why are we going? Why don’t we stay?” “My job ends next month. We have to leave,” says his […]

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Repatriation – Easier Than Another Expat Assignment?

‘Honey, pack your suitcase. We’re going back home!’ shouts your partner as he walks through the front door. ‘Whaaaat? Really?’ Your jaw drops. Whether you longed for this moment — without ever believing it would happen so soon — or you’re heartbroken to leave your host country (perhaps even resenting the idea to go back) one […]

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The Biggest Challenge of Repatriation – What You Thought You’d Never Need To Know

If you’re planning to go back to your home country after living abroad for any length of time, I bet you’re not madly skimming the Internet for information on how to make the most of your transition. Why should you? You’re going back ‘home’! No need for a language course. No need for a cross-cultural training. […]

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