Caring from Abroad: Emotions

by Phyllis Larkin, Psy.D

Geriatric and Family Psychologist


This is the first in a series of articles about ways to deal with the challenges of caring for an aging parent from abroad.

Often it’s a call in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s a long-anticipated decline. Mom or Dad can no longer function independently — financially, cognitively or physically — and you live five to nine time zones away. The question is always: What am I going to do now?  

Helplessness and anxiety, with a heaping side of guilt, are just a few of the common feelings around caring for aging parents. Here are some tips on how to deal with those emotions.

Your feelings are normal.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Shock does that to us. It’s normal to feel sad, fearful, panicky and even resentful. Dread is a common reaction: “I can’t just leave my_______ (job, family, spouse, life).” Grief often follows medical events, and it’s normal to find yourself re-experiencing loss and sadness. When the third act arrives, it reminds us all of our mortality and triggers feelings of loss.

What causes your emotions: internal or external?

If you can identify what is causing your emotions, you can better control your reactions. Warning: there is no black and white when it comes to emotions.

Internal emotions are driven by history, experiences, and relationships, whether they were good or bad. “I don’t want to care for Dad; he left us when we were little. Why should I give up my life to care for him now?” “I love mom and feel so bad about not caring for her now. She was always the rock when we were growing up. She cared for all of us, and now I’m letting her down. I feel so guilty.” Examples of internal emotions are: love, respect, longing, regret, resentment, loyalty, or ambivalence (for example, to feel relief with a diagnosis, but overwhelmed with the fallout.)

External emotions are driven by stimulus: living abroad, ICU sounds, medical terminology and procedures, family members, travel complications, work schedules, spousal reactions, legal issues etc. “I just need to get out of the hospital (skilled nursing facility, house.) I can’t stand seeing Mom so helpless and dependent. My brother is AWOL. I just flew eight hours and I haven’t slept in 48 hours. This is costing me a fortune. My husband is asking for a schedule and I can’t give him one. I don’t have any way to access her bank account to pay the bills at the house. I just want to scream!”

Interactive emotions are the combination of both internal and external emotions. It can all get a little overwhelming.

Getting control.

This is a good time to determine what is within your control and what isn’t. You can’t change the situation, but you can change how you react to it.

We can change our internal emotional state by being compassionate with ourselves, not judging our emotions and accepting our human condition. We can avoid catastrophic thinking.

What’s in your control:

  • Your thoughts
  • Your reactions
  • Your time
  • Your attitude

What’s not in your control:

  • Your loved one’s health
  • Other people's reactions, including family members
  • Outcomes of medical decisions
  • Other people's decisions
  • History

What you can do:

  • Eat well: Hunger complicates thinking and feelings.
  • Rest. Sleep as often as you can.  
  • Stay informed about medical issues.
  • Exercise.
  • Meditate.
  • Keep in contact with friends that you can trust who won’t judge your reality.
  • Hire caregivers to help with the burden. (Respite care can be used to get a break from caregiving. It is used by family caregivers to take vacations, recharge patience, catch up with medical needs, etc.)
  • Ask for help and then accept it.
  • Join the AWCA Aging Parents Support Group.


From a distance: 6 tips for expats with aging parents