How distance complicates caring for ageing parents

Maintaining personal contact between ageing parents and their adult children can require both planning and sacrifice Keystone

This content was published on November 12, 2014 - 11:00

Caring for parents who can no longer care for themselves can be difficult. With increasing  mobility, today’s adult children are even more challenged by geographical and emotional distances as their parents grow older.

“Over the last two years I’ve been back to the United States every two-and-a-half months,” says Swiss resident Carol McEowen, who travels regularly to see her elderly parents.

Coming and going is becoming more common for millions of people worldwide. The number moving from one country to another more than doubled – from 2 million to 4.6 million annually – during the decade 2000-10, compared to the previous 10-year period.

According to a joint studyExternal link by the United Nations and OECD, last year there were about 232 million ‘international migrants’ (a person living for one year or longer in a country other than the one in which he or she was born). 

McEowen’s case is typical. She grew up an hour south of New York City and now lives in the Swiss capital, Bern. Another sister lives elsewhere in the US. Their parents lived in their home for 45 years, until her mother developed Alzheimer’s disease and daily life became even more difficult for the couple due to extreme weather conditions.

Hurricane Sandy “was bad in terms of hurricanes, but my parents’ area was fairly hard hit, and they didn’t have power for a month,” says McEowen. Her older sister brought supplies twice – a nine-hour drive from North Carolina.

A month later a bad snowstorm followed the hurricane. “My father called me every time a tree fell, at two in the morning,” says McEowen.

Difficult relations

Deciding how to care for an ageing parent is often a source of conflict and debate for families, says sociologist Thomas Geisen from the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland.  

Even after arrangements are made, there’s constantly a need to keep up discussion and communication, says Geisen. Emotional conflicts “are quite common” when families live at a distance.

Sometimes these distances are also emotional.

Heinz Keppler (not his real name) is the oldest of four children who grew up in Bern. One brother lives in Thailand, and the other has been living in the US “for about 40 years. The last time I saw him was in the late 80’s,” says Keppler.

“We’re a very problematic family,” says the 73-year-old. “We don’t like each other very much.”

Keppler’s mother lived alone in her own apartment until the age of 93, when she was hit by a car. Keppler and his sister lived not far away and were able to help their mother. “But my ‘dear’ brothers didn’t make the slightest effort,” says Keppler. “They didn’t lift a finger.”

Family conversations were out of the question. “We don’t talk to each other.”

Maintaining contact

“Often you have one relative who is very close and who takes all the burden of the care arrangement, and you as a sibling are far away,” says Geisen. “You are not so often there. Your contact with your parents is not that routine, not on an everyday basis.”

Today, keeping up relations over distance is easier than in the past due to technology, says Geisen, but studies have shown that “even Skype – where you can see the person – does not replace the identification, the feeling of being together which is given when you have everyday relations with the persons you are close to. The personal contact makes a huge difference.”

But personal contact often comes at a price.

At the same time that McEowen was tending to her failing parents in the US, her German husband was travelling to Munich every three weeks to visit his newly widowed father.

“The last few months we’ve been playing tag with each other. He’ll come home, I’ll go,” she says.

On the move

An interactive mapExternal link produced by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project gives a country-by-country glimpse of immigrants' and emigrants’ origins and destinations between 1990 and 2013.

Approximately one in ten Swiss citizens lives abroad.

“If you have such mobility around the world then of course family relations become more demanding, more challenging – especially when care arrangements are involved,” says Geisen.

The “only child” phenomenon

Some people don’t get along with their siblings. Others don’t have any. “Only children” are facing a unique problem in China, which currently has a population of around 1.4 billion. The Chinese government instituted a “one child per family” policy to reduce population growth in 1979. These children now have no siblings to share the responsibility of caring for ageing parents.

Carmen Gretler, a dual Swiss-Chinese citizen, is an exception. She was the third of three girls born to a couple in Guangzhou, a city in the south of China, close to Hong Kong.

But only one of the three still lives in China. Gretler has lived in Geneva for 16 years and another sister lives in the US. The sister in China is busy, says Gretler. “She’s a businesswoman.”

When their mother was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, Gretler felt she had to step in. “I called my boss, I went to Bern to get a visa, and I went home immediately. . . .I wanted to share the burden. Because I knew [my sister] wasn’t able to do everything.”

Call me! It’s the law

It’s not just in case of sickness that Chinese children have a duty to care for their parents. In July 2013, the Chinese government instituted a law requiring adult children to maintain regular contact with their parents through visits and phone calls. Parents can even sue children who don’t take care of them.

But Gretler says this doesn’t change the fact that China isn’t as family-oriented as it used to be. The aged are becoming “more and more lonely,” she says. “That’s a serious problem now in China. Before, a big family, like two or three or even four generations, would live under the same roof. But that was a half century ago. It’s not the same anymore.”

For McEowen, travelling regularly to the US has had not just a physical and financial toll but also an emotional toll. Her father died over the summer, and she feels even more responsible for her ailing mother.

“You can’t do everything for them – you’re so far away,” she says. “How do you come to terms with that?"

Ageing population

The Federal Statistical Office estimates that by 2060, 28% of the Swiss population will be 65 or older, up from 17% in 2010. And in a country with one of the highest life expectancies in the world, increasing numbers of retirees will be overseeing the care of parents who are in their 90’s. 

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