Let’s Get Real about Leaving Family Behind While Living Abroad

“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, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath




My husband and I left Nicaragua in July 2018 with no desire to return until the government’s political violence, oppression, and human right’s violations of the Nicaraguan people are ended. That may take years. So, this post I wrote several years ago, is still relevant today because it is like leaving family behind. I am heartbroken for my Nicaraguan friends and adopted families who are unable to escape Nicaragua and are heavily repressed.

We were fortunate to have a back-up plan and resources to leave the country, yet our Nicaraguan friends don’t have the resources or the choices we had. Instead, we continue to support them through these tormenting times with financial support.

Please check back soon as I am writing a post as to how you can help by providing donations to reputable NGOs in Nicaragua to help the Nicaraguan people who are left behind and suffering.

And back to my post….

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.

III. Communication

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.


41 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real about Leaving Family Behind While Living Abroad


  2. I am sorry to hear about your mom. Was catching up on these blogs and came across this. That said, it sounds like your mother was one of those parents (a little to rare in my experience) who truly put their children ahead of themselves, who find joy when their kids are joyous.

  3. Oh my goodness. I’m catching up on my blog reading and came across your post, and it took my breath away. I’m so sorry we’re just now acknowledging your dear mom’s passing. Please feel our hugs and healing thoughts beaming up your way from Panama. I echo the many other comments that this post was a wonderful tribute to your mother and shows just how much you loved her. And she obviously loved you very, very much by giving you wings to fly and see the world.

    I also really appreciate the advice about maintaining family ties as an expat. You and I have a lot in common. My parents are in their 80s and it’s my dad that’s struggling with dementia. As was the case with your mom, mine is his caregiver. I’ve set them up with an iPad and FaceTime and we talk several times a week. I’m headed there in a couple of weeks and will make at least two more trips there this year; in the meantime, I’m lucky to have a brother on the scene that’s keeping an eye out. Still, it’s hard not being there for them all the time.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and how much I appreciated this blog – it resonated powerfully.


    • Susan, thank you so much. I know you understand how dementia slowly takes away the person you love. I am truly sorry to hear about your father. It is always worrisome to be so far away. Thank goodness for caring and loving brothers, right? Thinking of you on your journey through this horrible disease. It isn’t easy, but I am very grateful that I could see my mom every 2 months until she passed away.

  4. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman who gave you the gift of independence and a love for new places. We also worry about my elderly parents and use email and Skype to stay in touch regularly but I console myself with the fact that, as air travel gets more complicated in the US it probably doesn’t matter where we fly in from. I’m so sorry for your loss and know you’ll find great comfort in memories of your mother. Anita

    • Oh Anita, I still have a difficult time returning to this post to make comments. Somehow I think if I ignore her death, I will wake up and it will all be a bad dream. Returning to visit with elderly parents and finding a way to stay in contact with them on a regular basis does complicate life abroad. Yet, I know we made the right decision to continue along our paths. My mother would have never wanted us to stay behind for her. That consoles me.

  5. My father also passed last Friday, November 27. We are getting ready to move to Granada in January, and leaving him behind was a huge concern for me. I feel like he has given me a great gift, and I know he will be with me wherever I go. My condolences on your mother’s passing.

  6. Oh Debbie I am so sorry to hear of your loss. It sounds like your mother was a wonderful woman and lived a full and happy life. My grandmother suffered from dementia so the last years of her life were very hard. Take care

  7. So sorry for the loss of your dear mother. Nice to have a family like you do have. Thank you for sharing the news with us.
    Sincerely, Maria from NJ.

  8. This post is a beautifully written tribute to your Mother and family. We mourn with you over the lose of your Mother and pray that you and your family will be comforted with memories of her life and example.

    Thank you also for the words of advice for us living abroad.

  9. What a loving piece that honors your mother. She sounds like she was a wise woman and you are falling in her path. My condolences.

  10. I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. My heart goes out to you. My mother also has dementia and is currently living with one of my sisters ( I have four sisters but two of us live out of state) because she exhausted the other one’s patience with her constant questions asking the same thing over and over. One of my sisters has no patiennce at all and the other one in the same state is in denial over mama’s diagnosis.

    Mama’s getting worse that she used to be and is now having hallucinations. This started about a week ago. I’m terribly concerned about her and intend to visit after the first of the year while she can still remember me. I’m working so can’t go until after the holidays. My mother has never been around computers and doesn’t know anything about skype. She doesn’t remember anything for longer than a few minutes anyway. I talk to her by phone as often as I can, but I’m in touch with my sister (the caregiver) daily.

    The sister currently taking care of mom is a real saint in that she can look after everything, keep her sanity, never lose patience and still get to work daily. We can’t afford to put her in a nursing facility, so family has to step up to the plate. So far no one else is willing or able to do it.

    Having aging parents is a big hurdle indeed. I understand all of us have to make choices but I don’t see how anyone can move overseas, unless you have a big emergeny fund in place. Most of my family lives paycheck-to-paycheck.

    • Sunni, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with your mother. I remember when my mother started hallucinating. She would see monkeys in the trees outside and a giant moose head above the mantel that she told me my brother shot and stuffed for her. Her stories were wild and we learned quickly to play along with her because telling her that what she saw wasn’t real made her angry and upset. We became moose hunters and monkey watchers and actually, it was kind of funny being a part of her hallucinations and it made us all laugh.
      Dementia is a horrible disease. I have been following the medical advances and I hope they find a cure for it. One study from Australia looks very promising. They zapped mice with ultrasound sound waves. The vibrations wiggled the plaque off the brain and then little garbage cells swept up the plaque and it was cleaned out of the brains of the mice. Immediately the mice improved and they could run mazes again, and remember how to get their food. Next year they are zapping larger animals. It is fascinating and I sure hope they can improve the lives of people suffering with dementia.
      I needed a very large emergency fund because I traveled back to the states every two months for several years. Thank goodness for my new Social Security checks. They made all the difference for me to be able to go back to the states to visit my mom. Sending hugs to you.

      • Very interesting about the mice study. I wish they would find a cure. Yes, my mom gets very angry if we don’t agree with her. Dementia, or any illness like that, is very trying.

  11. Debbie,

    My prayers and thoughts are with you. Your mom raised a loving daughter. As I prepare to embark on a similar journey to Ometepe in the next two to three years, with my wife and mother in tow, and as I will be leaving my two young boys (early 20’s) behind in the States the decision seems to weigh heavier and heavier with each passing day. I admire how you were able to take the plunge, albeit with all the support you had from your mom, and friends, as I am coming to understand the challenge of that impending physical separation I know it will be difficult for me, yet I dream about my life there every day. Your post is, once again, so pertinent to me, as I ready myself to transition into retirement and move to the shores of my beloved Cocibolca. Hope you and Ron will be around in February, as I would love to share un trago de flor de cana con agua de coco with you when I am there.

  12. What a wonderful story, and what a blessing you had in your mom, sorry for our loss,,, its sad ,
    life is tough…..
    Im bringing my mom with me to Nicaragua… she’s 82 and is looking forward to her next adventure….. living in a foreign country ,,and in a tiny cob house off the grid…. her cob house will be on my property ,but we will each have our own creative hand sculpted dwelling!!!
    Both of us are becoming residents as well….guess I should look into residency for my lil dog Lulu Ball too…hahahahahaa!!!!
    Many blessings,

  13. Sorry for your loss. Skype was how I kept in touch with my father — but I just called his home phone and paid three and a half cents a minute. I think the internet in general has made expatriation very different than it must have been. The 19th Century sent letters and some families stayed in touch that way, but they were fairly affluent. Moving away to another country mostly meant never seeing the people left behind again.

    • Thanks Rebecca. I read stories of people who moved in covered wagons across the U.S. during the gold rush and many of them never saw their families again. I can’t imagine life without the internet. It has made keeping our connections with loved ones so much easier.

  14. I’m so sorry for you loss and my deepest sympathies to you and your family. You have made some very good points in considering moving abroad. We are wanting to, as well, and I have aging parents that I believe one day will be living with us. I’ve expressed that to them so they will never feel alone when the time comes for us to make that transition. I’m so glad your mother mastered Skype and you were able to communicate all this time. Blessings and Peace to you~

    • Barbara, you are making the best decision to have your parents live with you. I wish my mother could have joined me in Nicaragua, but the timing wasn’t right and it would have been very difficult for her to receive the care that she needed here. Thanks for your lovely comments.

  15. So sorry for your loss. Your mother sounds like quite a wonderful person and you now are her light shining on! My mom who had never set foot out of Milwaukee sent us off to the Peace Corps with her blessings and then as the years passed and as our work took us to Africa, she decided to finally step out and visit us! She was always so happy that we lived in ‘strange places’ so that she could come and visit us. She finally moved to Oregon with us where she died at 91 years of age….reminding me that her adventures were thanks to our travels. Thanks for sharing this part of your story; it brought back many fine memories of my mom.

    • Joyce, I love hearing stories of our mothers. Thank you for sharing. Until my mother was unable to travel, she always visited us wherever we were. She was an adventurer and always made new friends. Her last big adventure was to travel to China to see her old neighbor that lived beside us when we were younger. I think I inherited her gypsytoes. 🙂

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