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 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?