Non-stop guilt of the long distance carers: You and your children are in one country, your elderly parents in another. And, as CRISTINA ODONE knows to her cost, it tears you apart

  • Caring for both elderly parents and young children is growing harder for women
  • Some, like Suzanne Scott, live far from parents but are still the primary carer
  • She moved to Dubai but her father died soon after leaving her mother alone
  • Her story is a common one with women in their 40s and 50s struggling with care 

For ten years, I was a globetrotter. I flew so frequently that all the airline stewards knew me and I them.

It might sound glamorous — but I was no jet-setter flitting off on luxury holidays, nor pursuing a high-flying career. Instead, I was a more or less full-time carer for my divorced, elderly parents, while trying to look after three children and hold down a job.

All the flying was down to my father living many miles away, first in America and later in Italy. I was based in London with my family. My mother, thankfully, lived nearby. It was when Dad suffered a heart attack that life suddenly became frantically busy.

Some people struggle with the need to look after their children while also caring for elderly parents who live miles away (stock photo)

I had become part of the ‘sandwich generation’. Longer life spans, combined with women having babies later, mean 2.4 million Brits are now torn between dependent parents and children.

And what complicates matters further for a growing number of women is that improved travel networks have seen more of us move away for work and raise families far from home.

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For these long-distance carers, looking after everyone’s needs is even harder — as former teacher Suzanne Scott, 46, can attest. Four years ago, she and her husband Peter moved from their family home in Malvern, Worcestershire, to Dubai for work.

They have five children. Suzanne’s stepdaughter, 30, is disabled and lives in a care home in Gloucester. Stepson Andrew, 28, and Suzanne’s youngest son Alex, 19, also live in the UK. Her two older sons are further afield: Jamie works in Australia, while Dan, 23, is a soldier who was recently deployed in the Middle East, but is now living in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Suzanne’s mother, June, 73, was widowed last July and recently settled in South Wales.

Suzanne Scott and her husband moved to Dubai for work – her father passed away soon after leaving her mother alone (file photo)

Suzanne says: ‘After my dad died, it was horrendous. I felt completely torn between needing to be in the UK for my mum, wanting to be at home with my husband and worrying about my children dotted all over the globe.

‘It’s made me so ill that I’ve recently had a bout of pneumonia.’

And Suzanne is clear on what exacerbates the situation: distance. ‘It’s very hard being apart from the ones you love. The staff at my stepdaughter’s care home are very good at keeping us informed if we need to rush back but, with the best will in the world, it takes 16 hours. We’ve discussed future care for my mum, too — and my husband and I will return to the UK within the next five years, when he retires.’

For the moment, Suzanne’s commitments mean that she feels unable to work. She recently turned down a teaching post, so she could ‘travel freely to provide any support the family needs’.

Dr Carolyn Barshall, a GP specialising in women’s health, says women are increasingly struggling under the pressure of caring. ‘Those in their mid-40s and 50s, approaching or going through the menopause, are already experiencing problems such as memory loss and organisational difficulties. Add to this the pressure of having young children and elderly parents and, inevitably, they burn out.’

Like Suzanne and so many in the same position, looking after myself didn’t feature on my radar — I thought only of how many people needed me. Even before my father’s health began to fail, his loneliness — after losing my stepmother to lung cancer — meant we talked daily.

Luckily, we could speak at length over Skype — me in my kitchen cooking, he in his study in Washington DC shouting: ‘Don’t forget the rosemary, a handful really makes a difference to risotto.’

Women in their 40s and 50s are increasingly struggling under the pressure of caring (file photo)

Then, in 2004, he had a heart attack, aged 71. ‘I have to go,’ I told my husband, Edward. So began my regular trips — four or five times a year. That first time, I took our one-year-old daughter, Izzy, leaving Edward in charge of my stepsons, then 11 and nine.

Once with my father, I set to work: bills had piled up, nurses were clamouring for pay cheques, food was going mouldy in the fridge, medicines had expired.

All my life, Dad had been the decision-maker, an economist whose job had taken our family across the world. Now, he was smarting at his newfound vulnerability — he needed help bathing and could only move with a Zimmer frame.

That first visit, I stayed for a week. Then, a few months later, for two weeks, when he was back in hospital with septicaemia. This time, doctors warned me he might not pull through.

I sat by his bedside and urged him to live, wondering how on earth I could ever leave him if he did. A rota of nurses took care of him once he was discharged. However, for me, juggling three households grew ever more precarious. One year, I burst into tears when the first batch of Christmas cards arrived: each envelope a reminder of my failure to send ours out.

I felt I was robbing the children of a perfect Christmas. It didn’t help that they clearly had mixed feelings about my priorities: when my father Skyped to say he needed me back in America — even though I’d just left him — his toddler granddaughter refused to wave to him, while my stepsons rolled their eyes.

Meanwhile, my mother was beginning to complain of dizzy spells and shortness of breath. My periodic absences were keenly felt. When she suffered a small stroke in 2010, aged 77, I was thankful I was with her to call the ambulance.

But I also remember the sinking feeling that soon she, too, would need 24/7 care.

Psychotherapist Lucy Johnson says the demands of caring lead women to feel both anxious and guilty, because they simply can’t do everything for everyone.

‘My typical patient comes to me because she is suffering from anxiety. She doesn’t feel she has kept everyone in her life happy.

‘Typically, she will feel she has to prioritise both sets of loved ones — young and old — and will forget her own needs.’

Psychotherapist Lucy Johnson says the demands of caring for elderly parents and their own families can lead women to feel both anxious and guilty (file photo)

She adds: I have to tell women: “You are no use to the people you care for if you are in this state of collapse.” I remind them they shouldn’t be ashamed of taking care of themselves. I encourage them to set boundaries.’

But that can feel almost impossible with people who have loved you unconditionally all your life. It was only after eight years of struggling that I felt able to admit I simply wasn’t coping and both my parents and children were suffering as a result.

I told my brother that I was exhausted, so we talked through our options — and settled on a counterintuitive solution: moving both our parents to Italy.

This is where they had started a family, my father had a network of friends and relatives there and living was cheap. Near my father’s family home in Piedmont, a two-bedroom flat cost less to rent than a garage in West London. Carers were a fraction of UK prices.

My father took a great deal of persuading, as did my mother. But they could see I was near breaking point. In 2011, we moved them into two separate flats in the same block — despite their having rarely exchanged a word since their divorce in 1973.

This arrangement was far easier on our finances. Best of all, I could visit over the weekend and still be ready for work on a Monday. Far from ideal — but it was a coping strategy that worked for us.

Petra Weber-Jackson, 32, is a long-distance carer who knows making her situation work is all about the art of the possible. She lives in the UK with her husband Mike and three sons, aged 11, seven and five, while her 70-year-old mother is in Austria.

Petra was born in Britain, but spent time in her mother’s native Austria as a child, while her dad remained here for work (he owned a shop), travelling to and fro to see them.

Sadly, when Petra was 18, her dad died of a heart attack. She recalls: ‘I only just made it from Austria to see him before he died. And after just a week, I had to return and carry on my totally different life there.’

Petra’s mother has now been diagnosed with macular degeneration, which affects her eyesight. ‘She doesn’t feel confident in travelling alone, so it has been a while since she came to England. We go to Austria as often as we can, but the children miss their dad if we stay too long.’

Her main stress is the constant feeling of guilt. She says: ‘You always feel pulled in 27 directions and not able to do any of it properly.’ For Petra, social media goes some way to bridge the gulf, but as older people grow increasingly infirm, they may no longer be able to use this lifeline.

‘I’ve tried teaching Mum how to look at my Facebook, so she can see the kids, and how to message me. She still struggles, but friends help her.

‘Should she ever need further care, I hope to be able to provide it myself. The children and I could move there, at least temporarily. I’d much rather that than leave her in a care home.’

When my own parents died, four years ago and only five months apart, I admit that my grief was mixed with relief. I felt no regrets, however. I had done my best for them.

Over time, long-distance caring takes its toll. But helping the people who raised you feels right. It also sets a good example: our children have learned that ‘family’ is a wide embrace, folding into its arms three, sometimes four, generations.

When our time comes, I am sure they will remember that a child’s love covers even the greatest distances. 

Concentrated Parenting: Seven Key Moments In The Lives Of Children by Cristina Odone is out now on Amazon Kindle.

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