According to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain has a greater proportion of citizens living abroad than any other European country. In 2010 there were almost 4 million Brits living overseas, with many more having packed up for foreign climates since then (figures suggest 1.2 million people born in this country currently live in other EU countries).

If you’re among them you’ll probably know all too well about the difficulties of coping with an unfamiliar culture and communicating in a language that isn’t your mother tongue. But depending on your age and circumstances, a far bigger cause of stress is likely to be having ageing parents who are still living in the UK.

Caring for elderly parents and dealing with the care system when you live in the UK can often be tricky. But if you’re thousands of miles away the worry of dealing with things remotely can sometimes be overwhelming. Indeed, many expats with elderly parents living in the UK talk about the crippling guilt and anxiety they experience at the mere thought of their loved ones’ health deteriorating, not to mention the tension it can cause with other family members still living at home.

Thankfully there are some things you can do to give yourself some peace of mind while helping your parents stay as independent as possible, for as long as possible:

Plan ahead   

As more and more people live longer it’s likely to be a case of when rather than if your parent or parents will develop a long-term health problem. Try to accept that this will happen at some point and make plans for what you’ll need to do, even if your parents are likely to stay healthy for a good many more years. Try to have a caring but frank conversation about this with your parents during your next visit, and try to come up with an ideal solution for everyone concerned.

Set up Skype

You’re probably already making regular phone calls to your parents at home. But during your next visit, set up Skype if they have a computer or tablet, and teach them how to use it if they don’t already know.

Set up regular days and times to ‘chat’, taking into account any time differences between you. After all, talking to your parents face to face rather than on the phone isn’t just cheaper, it can be more reassuring for you too, as you can see how well and happy they’re looking.

You could also encourage your parents to take classes in using computers and technology such as Skype – their local library or Age UK may have details of suitable courses.

Build a local network

Having people you know you can contact who live or work near your parents and who can pop in on them should you be worried for any reason can be a huge help when you’re living so far away.

Next time you’re in the UK, seek out local connections such as friends, neighbours, family members, social workers and/or health visitors, and make a list of their contact details.

If you’re lucky enough to have family members living near your parents, keep in regular touch with them – and not just for keeping an eye on your parents, but for other things too. You may have to rely on their help one day, so treat them well.

Keep them safe

It’s understandable that many older people want to remain at home and stay as independent as long as possible. If your parents are determined to not go into a care home, try to make the house they live in as safe as possible by arranging for any necessary alterations or adaptations to be carried out the next time you’re home. Also make sure they have or will get any mobility aids they may need, and that they will also get help keeping the house and garden properly maintained if necessary.

On the other hand, if you’re worried your parents aren’t eating well as they used to, you may want to consider paying a neighbour to help if you can afford to. Your neighbour could for instance stock their kitchen regularly or even bring them cooked meals if they’re struggling with going shopping or in the kitchen.

It’s also advisable to find out what services are available locally when you’re in the country rather than when you’re away. This may include anything from organising carers to help with washing, dressing and chores around the house to arranging for a meals on wheels service.

Dealing with such service providers from abroad – whether public, voluntary or private – can be difficult, especially if you’re in a different time zone. So make the most of your time while you’re back in the UK by sorting out what should be done to help your parents live comfortably.

Watch for clues

Once you’re back home overseas, keep a close look out for signs that your parents aren’t coping as well as they may say they are. It’s natural that they may not want to worry you if they’re having problems, but tackling health issues early on is preferable for everyone.

If you communicate via Skype, take note of their appearance and behaviour, and ask about what they’ve been doing to check that they’re taking part in their usual activities and hobbies.

If you do notice something that’s not quite right, ask one of your network of friends/family/neighbours to pay your parents a visit. In fact, ask them to drop in on a regular basis, as many older people can feel isolated, especially if they’re on their own (a friendly face and a shared cup of tea can make all the difference).

Put something aside

Flights can be expensive, so try to have some funds put by to pay for any last-minute travel arrangements should you need to fly home at short notice. Do your homework, if needed, and find out the best way to travel – which airlines offer the best deals, for example. This could save you valuable time if the unexpected happens.

Most importantly, take care of yourself. You won’t be able to help anyone if you’re so stressed you can’t think straight or function properly.

For tips, recipes, and resources to help you promote your physical wellbeing, visit our physical wellbeing microsite.

Find out more

We also offer carer support to past and present ICAEW members and their families, wherever they are and whoever they’re caring for. Plus we can help with benefits, home adaptations and specialist equipment such as mobility aids. Our emotional support services are also here for you if you’re finding the pressure of looking after a loved one from a distance is getting to you.

For advice and information call +44 (0) 1788 556 366 or chat to an advisor online 24 hours a day.