They call it “the sandwich years,” the time in mid-life when your kids still need parenting and your parents also need help. People from all walks of life are the meat in this sandwich, and they represent a significant portion of the US population. A recent survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP reported that nearly one in four US households are providing or have provided care to a relative or friend in the past 12 months.
Global workers are not exempt from the sandwich years and often face even greater challenges than their homeland peers in caring for aging parents. Obviously, global workers typically live away from their parents and frequent visits are not usually possible. International phone calls can also be expensive, and in some locations even getting a decent connection can be a challenge. While e-mail has revolutionized communication for global workers, their older parents may not be comfortable with the technology, limiting its usefulness for family communication.
In the face of these challenges, how can our global workers care for their aging parents? One option is to return to the homeland. In the 1997 WEF (World Evangelical Fellowship) attrition study, 2.9 percent of global worker attrition was due to “elderly parents.” Although the percentage is relatively small, the numbers represent real people who have faced a hard decision.
The choice to return to the homeland can leave global workers and possibly other family members with guilt. Global workers feel torn between what has been God’s call and a love for the people in the country of service, and God’s new calling and love for parents. The aging parents may feel like they are keeping their son or daughter from what God has called them to do, which also produces guilt. This time of life often comes when global workers have served for two or more terms overseas, and have achieved a high level of language skills, integration and acceptance within the local culture. Leaving may seem like a great loss, causing global workers to wonder if it’s really God’s call or if Satan is trying to distract them.
Additionally, unless global workers have opportunities to serve in the mission’s homeland offices, they may be faced with major career changes as well. The decision to care for aging parents is never easy, and global workers who sense God leading this way need support and affirmation from churches and other supporters.
Some global workers remain on the field but still wrestle with the same emotions and questions. “Am I doing the right thing? Should I go to the homeland? What about honoring my parents?” The tension between a willingness to forsake all for the gospel, and love and honor for one’s parents isn’t easy.
When global workers stay on the field, it is often because their siblings are able to carry the responsibility for their aging parent(s). This requires the willingness of the siblings to do more than might be their “fair share,” since the global worker is far away and unable to be involved in the daily life and decision-making related to the parent’s care.
The gender and birth order of siblings also seems to be a factor. Steven Stern, professor of Economics at the University of Virginia, notes, “the eldest daughter still tends to shoulder the heaviest burden of caring for aging parents.” Single women, whether global worker or not, often step in for caregiving responsibilities because married siblings are busy with their own spouses and children.
One cross-cultural worker remained in Venezuela but made semi-annual visits to the US to be with her mother. While in the US, she accompanied her mother to doctor visits and checked on clothing and other household needs. They also enjoyed fun activities together. This global worker’s mom lived in a retirement community where she was well cared for even in her daughter’s absence, but the visits each spring and fall enabled the daughter to care for her mom while remaining in global worker service.
Churches and other supporters can help global workers caught in the sandwich. Be supportive of the global worker and the decision he or she has made. Whether the global worker remains on the field or returns to the homeland, there is potential for “what ifs” and feelings of guilt. Be affirming and assure the global worker of your ongoing love and emotional support.
When a global worker chooses to remain on the field but makes trips to the homeland to visit or care for aging parents, don’t be judgmental about the “waste” of funds. Rest assured that the global workers is not spending donated funds frivolously; the funds for these kinds of trips are probably from already modest personal funds or from a special gift, perhaps even from the aging parent.
Everyone has or probably will face the challenge of caring for aging parents. For global workers, this time of life brings unique challenges and opportunities to trust God in all things.
This article first appeared in the January 31, 2003 issue of World Pulse. Used by permission of Evangelism and Mission Information Services, Wheaton, IL 60187 www.billygrahamcenter.org/emis.