The heart-breaking reality of distance caring in the time of Coronavirus
[Note: This piece was written just as the lockdown was put into place]
She looks so small on my phone screen, as I facetime her across 5000 miles. For the first time in a long time, I see her face worried and anxious and her vulnerability so palpable. My mother, 75 years old, is not one to show her worries to her children. She is one of the most resilient women I know, always with a positive outlook and a smile on her face, despite all the hardships and setbacks she has faced through her life. But, today, as the threat of coronavirus becomes increasingly real, and we face a lockdown, she faces the prospect of being the sole carer of my father. And, I sit here, helpless.
My father who is almost 80 years old has been bedridden, with severe asthma and kidney disease for the past couple of years. My mother has not been well herself. She broke her foot in several places last year, and has high blood pressure and heart problems. But she manages to run the household with some help and support from my younger sister who lives in India, albeit in a different city, and a part-time home help who also helps her with my father during the day. But, this is going to be no longer possible.
India closed its borders almost 10 days ago, trying to stop this pandemic in its tracks. Family and friends are facing quarantine and lockdown with severe restrictions on travel and socialising in India, especially as there has been a COVID-related death in my parents’ neighbourhood. Travelling on public transport is risky. This means that my sister whom we, and they, usually rely on cannot travel home to help them. Neither can I or my other sister based in the USA as we all self-isolate, worried and anxious about our own children, and as travel bans commence.
It is heart-breaking to be so far away when our parents need us the most.
I moved to the UK almost 20 years ago, and it is not until now that I have realised the huge emotional cost that comes from moving across borders, away from your family. We have talked about bringing them here with us for a while now but the ever-harsher immigration policies have meant that they have been refused visas twice. Besides the loss of the very high visa fees, it has been emotionally traumatic for them. And, so we stay across these borders with walls growing higher and more impenetrable each year. Each year I see them growing older, and more frail, and there are natural worries about their mortality. But, with virtual communication, and regular visits, we have made it work somehow. I feel guilty, yes, but it has never been as severe as now.
Distance caring is never easy. Being a displaced migrant away from your parents is not easy. But in times like this, as all the well-established systems and routines fall away, it becomes very complicated. The thought of living more than a short plane ride away has always been difficult. The idea of having to deal with them aging, falling sick, needing me while in India is tough — not just because of the emotional trauma, but also because of the anxiety of juggling my work, my own children’s needs, and purchasing expensive plane tickets to be able to see my parents at a moment’s notice. Nevertheless, last year when my father had to go into intensive care, my sister in the USA hopped onto a plane at a moment’s notice to be there. We will not be able to do this in the near future.
In Indian society, the younger generation looks after the elderly, and therefore there has been no market for old people’s homes or carers. There is even threat of karmic retribution that is supposed to befall an Indian person who doesn’t care after their parents in their old age. As many children move away overseas, there is more demand but it is still a very small exclusive sector, and only concentrated in larger cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. In the small town that my parents live in, getting someone to help them during the day with cleaning the house was an ordeal. But, this is even more heightened now as services close down in India, people stay away behind closed doors, and I cannot travel at a short notice even if I wanted to. As we start social-distancing, this physical distance between families is harrowing. With their age and underlying illnesses, my parents are prime targets for Coronavirus. This worries me hugely, but what is even more worrying is that during this period, they would have no support.
So, what can we do? I am trying to be as present as I can virtually, communicating with them over facetime daily, talking to them through this crisis, listening to their concerns, and making sure they are following all safety regulations and guidelines. Even though I am unable to do much, hold their hand, or give them a hug, when this is what they- and I- need the most, this is helping us all. We are talking more, reminiscing about things we haven’t remembered for a long time, sharing recipes, and I want to listen to my mother’s stories, and understand her more than I have ever done before. In some ways, this is a very small silver lining. I feel closer to her and my father, and I feel more patient. I find myself ignoring the things that used to niggle at me, and annoy me just a few weeks ago. Our differences don’t matter as much anymore. And, somehow as the worries and anxieties about their mortality grow stronger, I have this urgent and desperate need to bridge any emotional distance between us. In doing so, I feel like I can somehow bridge this physical distance.
And, we keep each other hopeful and optimistic even as I sit here, not knowing when — and if- I will see my parents ever again.