Expatriate with Aging Parents: How to emotionally connect?

AdélaÏde Lefèvre

Psychologist

This time of COVID-19, things can be different. You can imagine your parents are more vulnerable and you can feel more emotional and anxious being far away from them. The long distance can appear longer!

As an expat, living abroad and dealing with long distance families and close friends is part of your life. After some time, you have probably learned strategies on how to manage your emotions and feelings being away, specially from your older parents. In a normal situation, even if you are far away, you can feel safe and secure while thinking about your parents who are getting older because you know the medical and health system in your country and you can be confident that the situation is under control.

 

This time of COVID-19, things can be different. You can imagine your parents are more vulnerable and you can feel more emotional and anxious being far away from them. The long distance can appear longer! The loss of control and the difficulty to have a mental picture of the situation in each country can reinforce your feeling of insecurity. Moreover, the uncertainty about travel bans and the feeling of being stuck in your host country can cause more anxiety.

 

Here are some ideas and tips you can use to help you cope with this situation:

 

  1. Normalize what you feel: it’s normal to feel sad or anxious about the situation. It’s a situation we never had the opportunity to learn about and we can have deep new feelings. Just let them exist and welcome them without judgement.

 

  1. Share to Connect: More frequent “check in” about their well-being is a way to deal with long distances and can build emotional security. For example, you can organize a weekly Skype or Zoom with them. Video calls are important to feel more connected together. Share your respective daily life aspects, share a daily moment together (coffee, tea, …), share a memory, share a project. You can prepare a photo album you send to them. Sharing time is a tip to connect together and feel closer to each other.

 

  1. Truly Communicate: Take the opportunity to truly communicate with your parents in such a way that you can express yourself more. For example, you can tell them how you miss them. By telling what you feel, you can reinforce the relationship and increase the feeling of being together. If it’s easier for you, you can write it down and send it to them.

 

  1. Be present for them: Despite the distance, you can be mentally present. Being present doesn’t necessarily mean being physically present. You can send messages, pictures, thoughts, … expressing how you think about them, even if you are far away
  1. Build a “safety net”: You can think about a safety plan around your parents by communicating with a friend, neighbor or family member who can help and be a referent in your name. It will make it easier for you to feel safe if you know that you can seek help.
  1. Accept the situation: There are a lot of “acceptance” to work on — i.e., accept that the situation is not under our control, accept that our parents may think and feels things differently, etc. Process with our acceptance in this temporary situation is a way to step back from the situation and to feel less in charge of everything.

 

  1. Find the balance: When we are anxious, our thoughts can work in different ways. For example, we can deny the situation and live as if nothing changed. This mechanism is a way to protect ourselves but this can also make us avoid the situation and stop us taking concrete actions to deal with the situations. On the other hand, anxiety can cause a tendency to catastrophize the situation and disconnect ourselves with reality. It can be a challenge to find a balance between these 2 attitudes. Try to look at the real situation and ask yourself: “what is the situation right now?”, so you can figure out how you can adapt the best way you can.

 

  1. Release your guilt: In case of crisis, people can feel more guilty about decisions made and take the situation personally. This can bring a more irrational thought process. People think that the crisis is because of them. But the situation is not because of you or because you are an expat.
  1. Avoid being isolated with your emotions: Share with other expats or look for support from others that have a similar story as you, this helps in normalizing the feeling of helplessness and being lonely.
  1. Ground in the present: Anxiety can give us negative anticipation of the future. Ground in the present is a way to connect with a safety plan. You can meditate every day to calm down your thoughts. By meditating, you can also send your positive energies to your parents.

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