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.
‘I’m homesick’ says Patricia (68) who came to Tasmania 35 years ago.
‘How can you say something like that?’ exclaims Clare, her daughter who lives on the Australian mainland with her family.
‘Mum, your life is here! You have all your friends and your activities here.’
‘I know. I can’t explain it. I’m surprised myself. I never thought I would feel like that. I have a wonderful life here but since your dad passed away, it’s not the same anymore.
I find myself longing for a place where I can speak my mother tongue. I’m tired of having to make so much effort. To think, to explain, to fit in.
I want to be in a place where people understand me. I’m afraid for the future. My memory is starting to be a bit shaky. What if I lose my English?
Who is going to take care of me when I won’t be able to take care of myself?
You’re too busy. I don’t want to be a burden.’
‘But in your home country, it won’t be easier. Where would you go?’
‘Well, there is still my brother… and his wife. I could stay with them.’
‘But mum, Uncle James is 7 years younger than you. He and his wife may very well not be delighted at the prospect of caring for you!’
‘Oh, they’re always telling me that I should come back. So I suppose they’d like that.’
‘I’m not so sure. Remember how his wife was upset when Grandma was bedridden and they had to do it all alone? Don’t you think that they resented you for being so far away and letting them down?’
Patricia remains silent, staring at the ground.
‘Don’t remind me of this awful time. I felt so bad.
Mum was unwell for months. To ease my brother’s load, I went back to nurse her for 8 weeks.
As if on purpose, your father hurt his shoulder just before I left. Every day, he would pressure me to come back. On the other hand, Mum was depressed and I used all my strength to cheer her up. When the doctors said that they were more optimistic about her health, I returned home, emotionally exhausted but relieved that I had been able to contribute.
Learning one week later that she passed away was such a shock. I was so weak that I couldn’t even make it to the funeral. To this day, I still have nightmares.
I know that there was some tension with my brother at the time. But it’s so long ago. It’s all forgotten.’
‘This is what you want to believe but if you see each other every day, the excitement of the reunion will wear off. If you burn your bridges, you’ll be stuck.
I won’t be able to come easily to see you and take care of you.
No Mum. You should really consider moving to our place.’
‘What? You’re not even sure to remain there forever. And at my age, I don’t want to start everything from scratch. Making new friends, moving, adapting to a new climate, I don’t have the energy for it anymore. I feel I belong a bit everywhere but not fully somewhere. I’m all scattered.’
Clare feels powerless. Seeing her struggling is painful. She’d like so much to help. But how?
Her mum keeps going:
‘I have to make a decision soon. It’s now or never.
Now that I’m still in a relatively good shape with my mind as sharp as it’s going to be.
But what should I do? It’s so stressful.’
The type of decision Patricia has to make is complex. Not only does she have to deal with the emotional connections but she also needs to consider the logistics, the financial aspects, the healthcare coverage, the pension policy and taxation structure in each country.
This decision might be the most difficult one in her life.
And where can she turn to?
She feels lonely and misunderstood. Maybe this is your case too.
What if there was a group of expat seniors wrestling with similar questions?
What if the only purpose of the group was to offer each other support through deep listening without trying to fix, advise or set people straight?
What if this was a way to access your inner voice, the only one – even if you don’t trust it yet – to know what’s best for you?
This may sound quite counter cultural.
We’re used in our society to look for advice and surrender to expert opinions. We’re used to reason things out, compare figures, calculate risks. For each problem, we go to a specialist. Whether it’s to repair our car or perform open heart surgery.
But when you have gathered the information and before you make your decision, there’s a space.
Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, defines it vividly.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
After this discussion with her daughter, Patricia went to see a financial planner, made an appointment with a real estate company, and sought information about her pension at the government office.
She’s now aware of her options and their material consequences.
But she’s still terribly confused. When she tries to open up with friends or family, she feels pushed and pulled in all directions.
The truth is: ultimately, she’s alone.
She has to make the decision for herself. And it’s scary.
What if there was a way to be ‘alone together’ as Parker Palmer mentions in his book ‘A Hidden Wholeness’ when he describes the principles of a group, also called ‘circle of trust’?
What if you – like Patricia – could take time to work on finding the right answer, just for you?
It’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. But through listening to others, hearing yourself share out loud, be honored in your words and thoughts without the attempt from someone else to influence you, you gradually will uncover the many layers of your expatriation and unearth what you’re meant to do.
This is what I’d like to offer you. A safe space, a trusting haven.
We have much to learn from within, but it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the inner life. We have much to learn from others, but it’s easy to get lost in the confusion of the crowd. So we need solitude and community simultaneously: what we learn in one mode can check and balance what we learn in the other. Together, they make us whole, like breathing in and breathing out.
Now over to you, what’s YOUR way of checking in with yourself? Where have you decided to retire?