Making that tough decision to emigrate is hard enough – but having to leave your parents, grandparents or other elder relatives behind can be a gut-wrenching experience.

How do you deal with the guilt? Should you emigrate at all? How will you cope with a family split apart?

Why your elder relatives can’t emigrate with you

It was all over the news earlier this year, 92-year old South African mother and grandmother, Myrtle Cothill, was told she would be deported back to South Africa after the court had found that she’d obtained entry into the UK by deceptive means, with the deliberate intention of making her removal difficult.

Myrtle has no family back in South Africa, so the decision was one which shook emigrant society and made headlines everywhere. Luckily Myrtle’s story had a happy ending. The Home Office eventually decided to postpone her removal after medical evidence that she was unable to travel and care for herself. But not all people are as ‘lucky’ as Myrtle.

This is not an isolated incident, and it’s something many South African expats need to consider when moving abroad. Immigration laws in most countries prohibit immigration for individuals who have chronic illnesses, syndromes or cannot take care of themselves, as this would place a strain on public resources. As a result, countries have age restrictions for those applying for permanent residency and most people will not be able to take their elder relatives with them.

Making a heartbreaking choice

Author, life coach and journalist, Leslie Garner, advised a concerned reader to take the leap and ship off to live with his children abroad after he was concerned for his parents left behind. Garner’s view is that our elders are quite often ‘more pragmatic and ruthless than we think’ and accepting of the choices that the younger generation needs to make.

The first thing to do is question yourself and ask whether you would accept your children doing the same to you when you are older. If you consider the price payable to offer them a stable and secure future, would this not be something you would accept? Because it’s something your elders will most definitely have considered. It’s something you possibly have to consider as you grow older as well – as the global culture allows people to move more readily and freely across continents. Your children, too, may leave you one day for foreign shores, and you may not be able to follow them. If you would be willing to send them off to live their lives without you, then is it so hard to consider that your parents want the same for you?

If you won’t accept your children leaving you one day, then perhaps you should reevaluate your decision, as you will have to live with the moral fallacy presented by this hypocritical choice. Garner believes that we are all guided by a moral imperative of human obligation – that age old adage which states that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And if you can’t see yourself being ostensibly ‘abandoned’ in old age (as many people view this step), then you and your family may need counseling before embarking on this journey as it could eat away at you and turn a positive life choice into a negative experience.

Coping with your decision

Choosing to leave your elders behind when you move abroad will never be an easy one, but there are some steps you can take to make the move a bit easier.

  1. Live with empathy

We are often so drawn into our own worlds that we forget about the bigger picture. Consider, for instance, that immigration is something which has happened for millennia. And if you lived in a previous era, it will have been even harder to maintain contact with your family back home once you’ve literally shipped off for new shores. Then also consider the millions of people who have been forcefully uprooted and left in new, foreign locations. Yes, this does not make your decision any easier, but if you start to live with empathy you will understand that you are not alone and you are not the first and it will draw you out of your sorrow. You will understand that it has been a reality of life for millions of people for thousands of years, and it may make your burden a bit easier. Of course, this does not eliminate your empathy for your own family, but it’s easier to live with a burden when you know it is shared by others.

  1. You are not alone

Now that you know you’re not alone, seek out forums and sites where you can discuss your concerns with others who share your burden. There are thousands of expat forums where people post and discuss their concerns daily. You will be able to find, and give, valuable advice and encouragement from others who know what you are going through.

Also consider talk therapy for you and your family where you can discuss your fears and your feelings. Get a therapist, friends or church elders to speak to your family back home as they, too, will need to know that they are not alone. Share with them the thoughts of forum members who are also older so they can share their pain and grief and have platforms to unload their sorrows.

  1. Keep your elders busy

Depending on the age of your parents or grandparents, there are different activities you could enlist them in or encourage them to participate in, in order to keep them busy. It may seem like a cheap trick to distract them, but the fact remains that they will be alone, and they will need to fill the empty space with alternative activities in order to stave off depression. This could include book clubs, assisting with charity work, bingo nights, photography, scrapbooking, craft clubs, woodworking or even starting their own blogs to share their experiences with their peers.

Thing is, once mum, dad, or your grandparents have something to do and other people to fill the void it will make your move just a little bit easier. They may be reluctant at first – it is, after all, something they will not be used to – but after a while they will find these activities to be useful and it will also improve their self-worth and add meaning to their lives.

  1. Schedule frequent visits

So this is one of the harder but most essential parts of your emigration plan. It’s important that you schedule frequent visits between countries. This is particularly important on dates which are important to your elders. According to some mothers of children who have immigrated, some of the toughest times to be alone are those days like Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It does, of course, become a costly affair, but if you book in advance, you may be able to find cheaper travel packages.

Also make a list of all the dates which may be important to your family in particular – think of days of mourning, or those when your family frequented their favourite holiday spots every year. Make a note on your calendar to call, Skype or have some facetime with your loved ones on these days.

  1. Take care of them financially

Although you may have put all your money into your move, you will only be able to soothe your conscience if you know that your elder family members are taken care of. If you don’t have cash on hand, perhaps you have policies left back home and can change your beneficiaries. Your current beneficiaries may, for instance, be your children – why not add your parents to the list, or give them a greater percentage of the cut. You can use your nest egg to take care of your family still left back home – if you need help, finglobal.com can assist you in this regard. You may also want to look into getting your older relatives a helper to assist them in the house or moving them to an old age home where they will be able to interact with other people, provided this is something they would agree to.

  1. Add a personal touch

Elders often lose contact with their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Although you may not be able to prevent this, be sure to tell your children about their grand folks every day, and do the same for the folks back home. Have your children draw pictures or create crafts which depict stories or capture the interests of their older kin. Send or show these to their grandparents.

Consider what crafts or trades your children will have learned from their grandparents and foster these. Was granddad great at whittling wood? Then why not get your kids some whittling tools and learn together. Grandma great at baking? Get those recipes from her and teach your children how to make koeksisters the way mum used to. Distance may not be something you can cover, but don’t lose out on that personal family touch – remember there is no family like yours. Hold fast your heritage!

  1. Don’t become bitter

It happens every day, words remain unspoken or the wrong words are spoken in jest and bridges are burned. Family rivalries grow, older siblings fight over parents and grandparents feel neglected and retreat. The saying may be that blood is thicker than water, but the trauma of sudden (and permanent) separation makes people react in strange ways. Remember that both you and your elders will need to work through the stages of grief and that there is no time limit on grieving. Reactions which may present themselves as resentment may simply be displays of the ‘anger’ stage of grieving.

Don’t resent your folks for the way they react or for being sad. They may be trying to cope with feelings of desertion – treat them the same way you would your children – with patience and understanding. You won’t be able to change them. You may have to deal with their pain and loneliness until the day they die – this is a sad reality, but it is part of life. Love and understanding are the only things that can overcome dejection and rejection – put on your big boy or girl pants and try to stay strong and positive.

Good luck from the cashkows team

We have to make tough decisions at times, we sometimes hurt the ones we love, but we have to be strong enough to process and carry the burdens of our decisions. If you’ve weighed up all the pros and cons, you know that emigration was the right decision for you. Remind yourself of those pros every day – as you’ll undoubtedly feel the cons pound at your heart every day as well.

Good luck to all the expats with family left back home. Our hearts go out to you and we wish you and your families all the best in dealing with this tough decision.

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