Ageing Abroad – Retiring, Yes But Where?

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.

Ageing Abroad RetiringAfter a 3 month-trip to her home country, she finds it incredibly hard to return.

‘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.
Parker Palmer

Now over to you, what’s YOUR way of checking in with yourself? Where have you decided to retire?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos




  1. This is precisely my dilemma at this point in my life!

  2. Decades ago I promised my daughter, “I will never be a burden to you.” She had been sick as an infant. Born with a heart defect and a nonfunctioning stomach valve. She fought back from a heart attack at 4.5 months. Finally, at 4.5 years she was declared “normal” in all ways. Then, in her 20’s she was a pageant queen with bulimia. Once again, she fought back. No way am I going to make her senior years any harder than they need to be. I am going to stay overseas and take care of my needs through friends nursing each other.

  3. I’m an American living in the state of Maine here in the United States, where I’ve lived for the past 18 years. I have also been a summer resident of Maine my whole life, and some of my family live here. I’m 66 years old, divorced, no children, and I’m self employed as a book coach and editor. So that’s my background.

    I lived the expat life in Africa and Denmark when I was in my 20’s and early 30’s, and I enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed the active social life and the opportunity to meet and befriend people from all over the world. My current life that consists of an almost non-existent social life (most of my friends live in other parts of the US) and nothing but white Americans is, quite frankly, boring the heck out of me! Nor do I see a particularly rosy future for a single woman of modest means with no children to look after her in her old age. I don’t see anyone from my large extended family stepping up when I need support and help.

    So I’ve made the tentative decision to move to South Africa — a country I don’t know, although I’m somewhat familiar with the African continent when I lived in Burundi and Kenya. But that was a LONG time ago! I have no current contacts or friends in South Africa. My decision is a “God thing” — in other words, just a knowing that I’m meant to be there. I can come up with various earth plane reasons why it makes sense (and why it doesn’t make sense!), but the truth is I’m allowing myself to be led by a “it feels right” attitude.

    I have some significant challenges that need to be addressed before I relocate to South Africa — namely my health and my finances. I imagine it will take at least 2-3 years to get my ducks in a row. I do plan to continue working in South Africa as a self-employed book coach and editor with an online business. Right now, I feel myself being drawn to settle in the Cape Town area, but who knows?

    Any feedback, suggestions, etc. would be most welcome. And, yes, you are allowed to tell me I’m out of my mind. I tell myself the same thing on a regular basis! Loving this great resource, Anne. Thank you so much for providing it!

    • Thanks a lot, Carol for sharing your thoughts so openly. Your longing reminds me of the words from Blaise Pascal ‘The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of’ 🙂

  4. Hi Anne,
    What a timely post! The issue has been at the forefront of my mind for a little while now. It is a huge question…and there is no simple, obvious answer.
    The plus side of being an (at least) Third Culture kid is that many places are culturally, linguistically and logistically accessible (I’d have a hard time retiring somewhere I do not speak the language for example). My close friends (aka substitute family to an extent) are sprinkled across 3 continents. Politics now perhaps more than even play a role, in addition to healthcare and finances, in possible choices: Is it possible to take up residency in the chosen country or is a 1 or 3-month tourist visa the only (unstable) option? In light of political and policy changes, such as in the US and UK, would one even want to return to one of those “home countries” at this point? How to organize and juggle possibly a split life, in which case which healthcare system would claim you as “theirs” (or, flip side, exclude you)?
    Often, professional advice suggests to plan ahead, to not wait until the year before retirement to start thinking about things, outlining decisions, collecting paperwork (time consuming in itself). Yet getting a head start isn’t a cake walk either, many of the variables change…
    I know when push comes to shove my decision will probably be made more by instinct than anything else. But I continue to dig, research and ponder 🙂

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