I'm graduating and want to move: but who will care for my ailing parents?

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I'm graduating and want to move: but who will care for my ailing parents?
Portion of an Art Print by James Coates Fine Art
I am a 22-year-old woman graduating from undergrad in a few short weeks. I have a serious girlfriend who studied what I did (Theatre Design and Production) and while we don't have anything solid lined up it looks like well be moving one of two places within the next month and a half. I'm so grateful to have her and so excited to start my life, but I can't come to terms with leaving family obligations behind.

My parents are in their 50s and 60s and both have had a lot of health complications. They're relatively stable, but because I'm their only child and I went to college locally, they have always relied on me for everything from helping with heavy household chores to emergency hospital visits. I know that I owe it to myself to live the life I want, which isn't really possible where my parents reside, but at the thought of moving away, all I can think about is who would help them do all those things if I wasn't there.

I feel lost because this narrative isn't reflected in my other young friends with healthy parents who are decades away from worrying about caring for them. My parents, while they have expressed they would be worried for me if I moved away, have not been guilting me at all.

How do I make this choice without being selfish? Or how do I come to terms with my own selfishness? How much should I be considering the also very real career needs of my partner?

Much gratitude, E

Taking care of loved ones locally is sometimes a foundation of a community and sometimes not. Despite a lack of support and weakening infrastructure in our social safety net (especially of late), most aging adults are able to find the care they need in some capacity to sustain themselves be it through friends or other family or assisted living services. This will be an especially poignant issue in the coming generations as more and more young people decide to become childfree. But I digress. I definitely see your dilemma in deciding to stay close to home or to pursue your geographically-dependent career dreams.

I took it to our awesome Facebook community to see what wisdom we could glean from our fellow Homies. Overwhelmingly, the readers felt that there could be ways that your parents could be supported while you are farther away and encouraged you to take that path, albeit with lots of communication and preparation. Here were some great replies to consider. Best of luck!

My parents are about the same age and have both had some health issues. My parents would feel horrible if I stayed around just because I felt responsible for them. They don’t like when people see them as burdens. They have fought long and hard for their independence. If you parents have friends and family around, then get to know and trust this network of people. Trust your parents.

Maybe set up your parents up with some technology and services that’ll help. I’ve found reminder apps, Uber, Lyft, mail order pharmacies, and Amazon subscriptions to be very helpful for both myself and my parents. My parents even have it set up so dog food, cat food, and cat litter are delivered to their house for free. – Sarah

Open up an honest dialogue with them and let them know how torn you are — they may have been planning for your move away and may already have a plan! Working together I'm sure you can alleviate your worry. – Tina

Definitely move. Maybe pay someone to check in on them twice a week. Set them up with mail order prescriptions, continuing Amazon deliveries, phone numbers on the fridge for doctors, friends, and neighbors. Make all necessary appointments for the next six months. Tell them that you are worried and that when you call once a week, you need them to be honest and let you know when they need help. – Molly

Is it possible to help your parents create a support system of alternate people they could call when emergencies happen? (Running under the assumption here that your parents are somewhat connected to friends or other acquaintances in their community). Is it possible for you to visit a few times a year and help out with the major stuff that needs to be done around the house? This is a strategy that family members of mine have taken when moving away from parents with health conditions. – Kiran

I am 72 and I not only still work full time I do all my own household chores and gardening. I can take myself to the doctor and know how to call 911 if necessary. My children all live more than a thousand miles away. I would never want to be a stumbling block in their path. I bet your parents feel the same way. They have choices, like perhaps a 55+ community where the heavy lifting is done by staff. Surely they have friends their age or younger, perhaps some of your high school group is still around and would check in on them if you asked. Go and find your place in the world. Both you and your parents would regret it if you don't. – Elaine

If your parents are open to it, start to work with them on creating their estate plan "early" (although really, what's too early??) so that you all have some peace of mind in case things happen. There are wonderful pro se resources for lay people like ourselves to start the process of identifying key retirement/end of life/emergency health decisions/etc. I'd start with NOLO's Estate Planning Basics and perhaps some of their other books or products may be helpful for you.

I've started this process with my own parents, as they are in their mid-late 50s, but in fairly good health — we're hoping to get ahead of any problems! – Kate

Honestly, if they aren’t in need of full time care, I strongly suggest that you move and continue to focus on yourself. It’s not by any means selfish to desire the chance to live your young life. Also to save yourself the resentment that comes from choosing to care for your parents before it’s truly time. Encourage them to set up a support system and there are transportation services for doctors appointments if that is necessary. It helps them retain a independence and allows you to take the opportunity to make yourself a full life. There will be a time where they will need you even more and when that time comes you will be more so able to provide the help that they will need. At the time you’re likely going to have a home of your own and possibly a family. Obviously keep a strong sense of communication and visit as often as you can but please allow yourself to live life unburdened by this kind of responsibility until it’s time. – Christina

50s and 60s is not elderly by any means! I am 50 and live alone. If I need something done like moving heavy objects, I hire someone. My kids are 1000 miles away (I'm the one who moved for work). It is not, nor has it ever been, your responsibility to take care of your parents. Be upfront about the time frame, help them line up resources, but do not feel guilty! They need to figure out how to live as independent adults. – Kelly

Talk to them and express concern. Dollars to dimes they will tell you to move on with your life, no guilt. Especially if they haven't expressed any sort of making you feel guilty about it anyway. My parents are also older in age, however independent, and have always told us to live our lives, that's why they've helped us. I would definitely have a discussion with them about what will/might happen in the future. Have a plan. – Mercé

Move away. You can always move back if you need to. My elderly (now passed) grandfather told me to "put my career first, my family will always be here for me." They're adults, they'll figure it out. – Allison

  1. I can see what a difficult position you are in here with no siblings to share the burden of care giving for parents with health difficulties. I have no idea how much of the care giving you have been doing is actually possible to hand over to others but given that you are even contemplating moving, some of it or even most of it must be. But I suspect this isn’t about whether it’s possible for others do what you have been doing it’s whether you feel ok about it.

    I think the most solid advice here is what so many people have said already which is talk to your parents about it and make this a family issue to solve together, not just yours. That will probably go against the habit of a lifetime I know…..I also think it’s worth thinking of moving away as an experiment, not something you have to work out all details of now that can’t be undone. Do a little prep for a few scenario’s and have at least a vague plan what you’ll do if things change with your parent’s health conditions, so you don’t end up trying work that out upset and on the fly.

    You absolutely deserve the chance to spread your wings but that thought alone doesn’t cancel out the guilt. It also doesn’t solve the issue that sometimes it’s just not possible in a way that not everyone will understand. Some other prep worth thinking about is setting up some support where you move (talking therapy etc) to deal with the feelings that will crop up when you move. It’s so worth giving living elsewhere a go, especially while your parents are stable, not least because it will be a really good chance to get some boundaries in place for if you do end up back at home caring for them if things change. A great little idea I love is the 51% rule. This basically says, if you want to help someone, then 51% of your energy must be directed towards your own well-being in order to be truly effective and useful to the other person.

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  2. This is too real for me. One of my parents is 93 and wheelchair bound, the other younger, but in poor health. I'm older now, but when I was the age of the OP, this was still a very real concern. The situation was also complicated by the younger of my parents being emotionally controlling and somewhat abusive, using their ages and health statuses to manipulate me.

    I eventually had to bite the bullet and just get out. I still live in the same city, just a significant commute away from them. I have an Amazon account that I share with them, and they live in a building with a close to 24 hour doorman, so I know they always have SOME kind of help close at hand. We talk once a week, and I probably see them every two weeks. It's hard, but we're all making it work. It's also understood that if there are any significant changes in either of their health statuses that my partner and I will likely move in with them. Not looking forward to that, but as it stands, it's the only reasonable course of action, and everyone has explicitly agreed to that.

    I guess my response to the OP is that I wouldn't expect to really feel at peace with your decision, no matter what you choose, but you HAVE to live your life. Their purpose as your parents is to set you up to be able to do just that, so not doing so is a refusal of the work they've done to facilitate your striking out on your own. Furthermore, derailing your personal development, be it professionally or privately, could lead to your being less equipped to care for them in more extensive ways down the line. Don't let that happen. It's the worst feeling in the world to realize that what your family really needs is something you can't provide because you didn't take steps earlier in life to ensure you'd be ready to provide it.

  3. I have been in a similar situation, except I have a younger sister. We took different paths: I moved away (In-state, but a few hours away) for graduate school and she still lives at home (works full time as a teacher in a nearby town). I've lived on my own away from my family since 2011, but I still feel tremendous guilt about it from time to time; and I know my sister deals with some resentment. I agree with Annie above: you're not going to feel 100% happy with whatever you decide to do, but you have to decide something. Your parents, if they're anything like mine, want you to pursue your dreams and probably have a variety of conflicted feelings of their own about needing your help. My suggestion is to seek out some sort of external, non-family support system for yourself, most likely via counseling.

  4. I would definitely talk with them about your concerns. One thing to consider is that if you all want to be nearby each other and they are retired or will be retired soon they might consider moving near your new location.

    Also I think the decision you have is time versus money, right now you are giving a lot of time. If you move you will be more likely able to help them monetarily if they need it someday. It also might mean that some of what you stood to inherit will go towards their care instead when they have to hire others to do the task you once did which is often an unstated reason that people who chose to care for their family members often benefit in the long run from their “selfless” actions.

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  5. A month and a half after I graduated from college (no job prospects, but lots of blind optimism that I'd find something), my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was 59 at the time. I moved back in with my parents, took over teaching my mom's high school English classes in spite of having no classroom experience or credentials, and became a full-time teacher by day and a caretaker by night.

    At the end of the school year, my family convinced me to live my life, so I moved about an hour and a half away and did my own thing for several months, visiting as frequently as possible. Mom died about three months after I moved away. That was four years ago.

    Unfortunately, I feel as though I'm STILL getting my feet under me financially, professionally, etc. because of that year I put my life on hold. BUT she only lived for one (very difficult) year, and I wouldn't trade that time together for any earthly possessions or job prospects.

    All this to say, I think there is something beautiful and absolutely worthy in both options, and you should do what is best and most fulfilling for you.

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  6. Boy, this really hits home for me. I have been in the "sandwich" generation, trying to take care of elderly, ill parents (in another state) while also raising my own kids. Then, a few years ago I, too, became ill. Not terminally, but chronically. As in, it's likely I'll never be "cured". Now my young adult children are in your situation. It's a tough spot, no doubt. My older child lived with me for a few years after college, and recently moved in with their gf nearby. The 2 of them are seriously considering a move across the country in a year or two. My younger child is in the military, so the gov't decides where he lives for the time being.
    Here are some tidbits from my experience I can share:
    ~ Because of my chronic illnesses there are household and occasional tasks I cannot manage on my own. I do ask my older child (who uses they/them pronouns) to help me sometimes, but I also have a network of others I can, and do, ask. Sometimes asking for help is a great way to spend time together we otherwise wouldn't plan. They help when they can, but don't hesitate to say no when they need to.
    ~ Being honest about when and how you can help can be difficult to articulate. Learning to set boundaries is massively important to everyone's well being. Growing up my family did not have great communication skills and this was really hard for me to do with my parents, even as an adult. It's getting easier, but it took a lot of work for me to get there.
    ~ I haven't lived close to my parents in roughly a zillion years. I've had the major guilt-trip laid at my feet for being so far away. When my dad was diagnosed with leukemia 6+ years ago he couldn't take care of my mom, who has advanced dementia. I took a year off work and commuted between their house and mine, 3.5 days in each place most weeks. It was very difficult, but I'm really glad I did it. It gave me a chance to say goodbye to the mother I knew before she stopped knowing who I am. Now I rest easier knowing I did what I could, when I could.
    ~ Though I will be sad when my older child moves away I fully support the decision. I was the one who moved away as a young adult and I'm still glad I did. I made a new life for myself, and have learned how strong I can be when the chips are down. I love the city where I live and it's a much better fit for me than where my parents live.
    Best of luck to you. You're obviously a caring person or you wouldn't be struggling with this decision. In the end you need to do what's right for YOU. Finding what that is can be a challenge. Hugs.

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    • You are so right that finding out what is right for you can be a challenge!

      When you have been used to long-term caring for family members it can be really hard to even ask yourself what you want, as supressing your own needs and desires can become an automatic survival tactic. Personally, it took a lot of work in therapy to get me ready to ask myself that question and respond really honestly. The other thing that helped was starting a relationship outside my family, something I put off for a long time – while I could deny my own needs I couldn’t deny my partner’s needs. Learning to balance my partners needs and my (some real, some self-imposed) responsibilities and burdens actually eventually helped me bring my own needs to the forefront. It was and is an ongoing process though, sometimes joyous, sometimes very painful, always worth it.

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