“And the danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.”
― Sylvia Plath,
These are my mother’s hands as she grasps her suitcase not understanding where she is going or where she has been. My mother passed away last week after a long battle with Lewy Body Dementia. That my mother should be my beloved teacher in the art of living a full life, comes as no surprise. She was the first person to tell me, “Go! Live a full life without any regrets. My love will be with you wherever your travels take you.” And, her love continues to be within me, now and forever.
When people consider moving or retiring abroad, their first question is, What about the family I leave behind? or I would love to travel and live abroad, but I cannot leave my children, grandchildren, and/or parents behind.
So Let’s get Real About Leaving Family Behind from my personal experiences.
I. Establish Priorities
My family has always been my first priority. When we retired to Nicaragua in 2010, our son was an independent young man living and working in Yosemite, CA. He inherited my gypsytoes, so the passion for traveling coursed through his veins. I knew it was only a matter of time before we would see him on our doorstep in Nicaragua.
However, my dear mother was different. Although she had always given us her blessing when we lived far from home, we kept in touch regularly by phone. Moving abroad required us to make new arrangements like teaching her how to Skype and use Facebook. We carefully reviewed all of our plans, set a weekly date to Skype, and I made plans with my brother and other family members to notify me immediately if I was needed at any time for any reason.
I understand that for some want-to-be-expats it is impossible to move abroad because of elderly parents. However, there is another option to consider. I know of several expats who brought their parent/s to live with them abroad. Hiring a caretaker is much cheaper in a developing country, the tropical climate eases the aches and pains of arthritic bones, and generally medicines are cheaper and can be obtained without a prescription.
It involves research and careful planning, but if a potential expat thoroughly explores a parent’s needs, it can be done. In my mother’s situation, she was a caretaker for her husband, so that was not an option for us.
II. Have a Backup Emergency Fund for Travel
Emergencies happen unexpectedly. My mother fell down a flight of stairs. She wasn’t hurt, but it was the first sign of her dementia. I booked a flight back to the states. One of our main considerations in moving to Nicaragua was the ease of traveling back to the states to visit family.
During my mother’s many transitions from her home, to an apartment close to her husband’s family, to living with my brother, to an assisted living facility, to skilled nursing, I was with her every step of her journey through dementia. I probably saw her more often than when I lived and worked in the states.
If your first priority is your family, it is vitally important to have emergency funds for travel. In addition, make sure your visa is up-to-date if you do not have residency because you will not be able to board a plane without paying a fine for overstaying your visa. In Nicaragua, the visa is good for 90 days. I know of an expat who wants to see his 95 year-old mother in the states, but he has accumulated over $2,000 in fines for not renewing his visa. He has no emergency fund, and until he pays his fine, he is stuck in Nicaragua.
My mother mastered Skype. It was comforting to see her on the computer screen every Sunday morning. But, as her dementia progressed, she forgot how to Skype, and eventually her communication with me came to a halt.
With advanced technology today, it is easy to stay in touch with loved ones who are far away. We’ve shared graduations, births, all holidays, and even deaths through Skype and Facetime. I was at the Managua airport last Friday hoping to arrive in time to say goodbye to my mother. My brother and I were on Facebook messenger. “Please sing the Quaker hymn to Mom that we always sang together. She will know that I am with her when she hears the hymn,” I texted to my brother and sister-in-law. My mother passed away as I was preparing to board, but I am grateful knowing that she heard the hymn and that I was with her through modern technology…every step of the way.
IV. Family Connections
Without the love of my family and friends I left behind, I doubt that I could have retired abroad. When my mother couldn’t Skype anymore, my brother and sister-in-law arranged for me to Skye with Mom. When I needed help making arrangements for my mother from long-distance, family and friends were always there to assist me.
Family and friends I left behind are my Number 1 priority. I never doubted that in my move toward new horizons and far directions, that I would ever lose what I have now. With the blessings of a loving husband and son, compassionate family and friends, modern technology that helps me stay connected, good planning, and funds for emergency travel…I will never experience loneliness.
For these things, I am very grateful. R.I.P my sweet Mother. You are a part of me and always will be.