Honoring My Parents When I Live on the Other Side of the World

As I looked around the room of fellow expats at our International fellowship’s women’s retreat this spring, I had a sudden rather shocking realization:  I was probably the oldest woman in the room!

This was one of those defining moments.

A “first time this has EVER happened to me” experience.  Déjà vu, just like the first time I ordered off the senior menu at Denny’s.

My new normal now includes things like saving money in restaurants and choosing to embrace my gray hair!

When my husband and I moved back overseas after raising our family in America, we soon realized that most “M’s” close to our age were heading back to their passport countries to be closer to their young adult children or to care for aging parents.

Our local friends here ask us why we are not home caring for our elderly parents and our grandchildren?  They cannot fathom why we would leave our family.  Usually it is the young families who leave their parents and grandparents to head overseas. In our case, we are breaking the norm.

In this culture, the elderly are respected for their wisdom and experience.  My gray hair also occasionally gets me a seat on the subway, but not as often as I would like!

My 91-year-old dad is now a widower for the second time and lives in the memory care unit in a beautiful retirement center.  I live overseas while my brother lives in another state.

A current, very real struggle for me is the question of how to honor my elderly parent while living overseas.

My dad spent most of his professional career as a surgeon overseas.  He made provision for himself many years ago by purchasing long-term care insurance.

He explained to us that he did this so that his children would be free to follow God’s leading in our lives.  That was his desire.  My brother and I are privileged to have parents who prepared and articulated their wishes so well.

But we still feel the need to show honor to our dad.

How do we do that when we do not reside in the same state or even the same country?

  1. Frequent communication

My parents and grandparents lived and served cross culturally.  Their families saved many letters written faithfully by my grandmother and my own parents to their parents while living overseas.  They kept in touch with their family almost on a weekly basis.  While letters took 2-4 weeks to arrive in those days, today we have instant face-to-face real-time communication through the wonders of technology.

  1. Visits

Air travel is relatively easy.  My brother and I have been able to find some great deals on air fares to make it possible for us to visit our father several times a year as we alternate our visits.

  1. Asking God how to best Honor our parent’s requests 

This one is hard.  Every circumstance is unique.

Should we honor every request made by our parents?  How do we handle criticism from well-meaning friends regarding our decisions?

I am quite conflicted. My heart is torn.

My father is pleased that we are serving in East Asia, the corner of the world where he spent the majority of his adult life.

And yet, there are so many days that I want to be with him to make sure he is thriving.  I want to be the one to take him out for walks, to be there on special occasions, to talk with him about the past and to read scripture to him.

These words often comfort my heart:  “Jesus said, Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

  1. Advocacy  

We honor our parents through advocating for them when they are no longer able to make their own decisions.  My brother handles my dad’s financial affairs.  I (as a nurse) handle his medical needs.  Through frequent phone calls and emails, we continue to communicate with his caregivers to make sure he receives the best care possible.

  1. Friends

Special friends and relatives who visit and check in are truly a gift.  I have one friend specializing in elder care who visits my dad and updates us on any needs or concerns. She goes far beyond the small stipend we give her in providing loving care for him.  This puts my heart at ease and is one of the greatest gifts of support, enabling my husband and me to remain overseas at this time. My heart is grateful for God’s provision.

Decisions on the best way to honor aging parents are hard and differ from family to family.

James 1:5 reminds us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

This verse reminds us that God provides wisdom we need when we desire to follow his command of honoring our parents, even while living on the other side of the world.

How do you honor your parents from afar?

14 Comments

  1. Steph May 31, 2017

    My parents did not live in the same place my friends and fellowship were. For a great deal of my early years overseas I would fly back to the city where my friends and fellowship were and visit my parents – in a 4-5 week homestay I’d spend about a week with my parents. About 8 years before they passed I realized that I need to switch my thinking and fly back to my parents and visit my friends and fellowship. I believe my parents, who were not like-minded, appreciated and valued the years that I stayed with them and not just quick visits.
    At the same time I switched my thinking about how I spent my time in the US I also had a heart-to-heart talk with my parents and let them know that I had already made the decision to come back to help care for them when the time came and that they would not need to ask me to come to help. From that time on till they passed away I was able to be with them through some major medical challenges they had. And though I was not able to return to help them their last days, they both passed unexpectedly, I know that this decision to be there without them having to ask for help spoke volumes of my love for them.

  2. JulieB June 1, 2017

    Stephanie-
    I love how you came to realize the need to switch your priorities by making your summer home base with your parents and then reaching out to other friends rather than how you had originally been spending your summers. Isn’t it great that God gives us just the wisdom we need to see our aging parents’ needs and then reset our own priorities? From your description I am sure that your parents felt your love and attention for them. What a wonderful way to honor them.
    Ironically, I just got here to the US this afternoon to visit with my Dad. He is talking a lot about heaven these days. Not sure what is in store for these weeks we are here this summer, but thankful that I can be here with him and advocate for him in some of the upcoming decisions.

  3. Michele June 1, 2017

    Thanks for this advice! It’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the last couple of years. I watched my mom care for her parents alone in their last years just before I left for Asia, and promised my only sister I would not leave her to do the same. They are now 70 and 71 and still going strong for the most part. They care for my sister’s youngest (8)and her granddaughter (their great granddaughter) while the moms work every day, and two years ago every email or message was full of the exasperation of dealing with their behavior all day. I realized (through MUCH prayer) that the best way for me to honor them is to come back every summer and take over the babysitting. It’s a big step for me, but I could tell it helped and that they truly do feel honored that I am doing this, as well as giving them more time after 24 years of being mostly overseas. As I get ready to go again, returning to the States after the shortest period ever away, this article is so encouraging. I especially appreciate the wisdom to seek wisdom from God for each case! For sure, what I’m doing isn’t for everyone, but I know it’s right for now, and this was a great reminder!

    1. JulieB June 1, 2017

      Michele-
      It’s so great that you can come back each summer to help out your parents and to give them a break from the babysitting. I love all of the creative ways that we can respect and honor parents in their various seasons of life.

  4. Heather Henson June 1, 2017

    Your article could not have come at a better time. Together with my husband I’m about to leave for an unknown (to us) term in Greece. My dad is 92 and my two granddaughters are 3 and 2 months. I’ve had many well meaning people including relatives (I’ve got 5 siblings) who have apparently felt free to express their opinions to me. So yes, thank you. God is good. All the time and your words coming at this time have been a gift.

    1. JulieB June 1, 2017

      Heather,
      Blessings on you as you leave. It is so hard leaving those precious ones back home. Leaving your dad is hard and leaving those precious grandchildren is also hard. Just. Plain. Hard. I know the Lord will give you grace and His strength for each day. So thankful for technology. Today we saw our youngest grandson (18 months) and he knew our voices and knew who we were even though we had not held him for several months. One thing for sure, the Lord will continue to lead and direct you as you trust Him.

  5. Maggie Van Slooten June 1, 2017

    Thanks for addressing this. My case is almost the same as Julie’s, but I think she does a better job of it. My 90 yr old widowed Dad lives alone in his own house and I depend on my brothers, their wives and adult grandchildren who live closeby to do the hands on care. My struggle is to trust the rest of the family not to “drop the ball” when they are all so busy. My Dad is one of my biggest supporters and prayer warriors. He would not want me to leave the field to come back and care for him. In a few weeks I’ll be on my first home assignment for 4 months and we will stay at his house. I will get a closer look at the situation at that time.

    1. JulieB June 1, 2017

      Maggie- How wonderful that you will have the opportunity to be with your dad and to really be able to assess how he is doing with living alone. It’s great that you have siblings to help out and be your eyes and ears. However, I think God’s timing is great to allow you to actually see for yourself this summer. Also it will be so good to be able to be proactive and talk with your dad and your family about future plans for him if and when his health begins to fail. So great to be able to think and plan and problem solve before the situation requires to you make hard on the spot decisions.

  6. Katie Rose June 1, 2017

    This article is very well written. Thanks for your insights. I think the biggest way the Father has really forced me to honor my parents during this season (a two-year term) has been to be real with them. I, for perhaps the first time in my life, have cried–and I don’t mean wiping away those quick, hot tears; I’ve broken down before them, with nothing between us but the computer screen. I’ve done it more than once, in fact. I’ve never grieved or even really suffered WITH my family–I’ve always been away at school over overseas. But this time, I had to let them in, or I would go home to them and yet remained far from them, emotionally. I’ve also just learned to more frequently talk with them. It has grown us exponentially. But…I am very, very excited to see them in July!

    1. JulieB June 1, 2017

      Oh Katie Rose-
      Being open and vulnerable and taking off our masks…..what a great gift you are giving to yourself and those who love you most. Frequent conversations and allowing them into your life will bring you all so much closer and make the time you are physically together even sweeter. You are so brave and courageous for letting down your guard and sharing the real messy stuff of life with your family. I applaud you my friend!

  7. Sherri Dodd June 1, 2017

    When we live our lives well to the glory of God it honors our parents whether they are still here with us or gone on to heaven. Thank you for sharing this blog and giving the grace for each of us to figure out how best to honor our parents as they age and we serve cross-culturally.

    1. JulieB June 1, 2017

      Sherri-
      You summed it up so well…..yes the most important thing is about God’s glory! And secondly about the grace we give to our co workers. Thank you for your comment!

  8. Malana June 1, 2017

    We came to the opposite decision, but with a different circumstance. We began our first out of country living upon retirement. My sister lives close to my father, so she was was taking care of his needs, since he lives alone and doesn’t drive.
    God spoke to us to move home, using the scripture about Corban, the denial of the parents’ needs based on dedicating items to God. We felt that saying we were Ms dedicated to God, but denying the needs of our parents, was not honoring the Lord.
    My father is not a believer, but he wants us to live our lives to the fullest. Yet honoring his wishes meant severe stress for my sister. So we cam home

  9. JulieB June 1, 2017

    Malana-
    How great that the Lord has led you home to care for your father. I have found that honoring our parents also includes thinking about our other family members and sometimes our own needs to be close by as well. My prayer for you during this season is that your father will see the Father’s love for him through your care and devotion and come to know Him personally. Being a caregiver is very stressful. It is so great that you and your sister can share the load together in this way.

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