Skype has not eased loss for parents of emigrant children

Analysis: Tilda study shows mothers particularly suffer loneliness and depression after children emigrate

Alone, the charity working with socially isolated older people, replicating an ad they ran in Irish newspapers in Britain and the US in the early 1980s, as the last wave of mass emigration from Ireland was just beginning.

Alone, the charity working with socially isolated older people, replicating an ad they ran in Irish newspapers in Britain and the US in the early 1980s, as the last wave of mass emigration from Ireland was just beginning.

 

There is a poster hanging in the Dublin office of Alone, the charity working with socially isolated older people, replicating an ad they ran in Irish newspapers in Britain and the US in the early 1980s, as the last wave of mass emigration from Ireland was just beginning.

“Please keep in touch with the old folk left behind,” it reads, under a black and white photograph of a lone elderly woman lying under a heap of blankets in a tattered bedsit.

With Skype and cheap air travel nowadays, people often say the impact of emigration on the people left behind has eased. But a new report from Trinity College Dublin’s longitudinal study on ageing (Tilda) has shown women whose children have moved abroad in recent years are still suffering the loss.

When Alone’s chief executive Seán Moynihan heard the findings, this poster immediately came to mind. The parents of people who left Ireland between 2010 and 2012 were generally younger (60.5 years versus 66.3 years), more educated and healthier to begin with than those whose children have stayed, which might suggest they were in a good position to withstand any possible mental health effects of their children leaving. However in spite of this, the study found they suffered a significant increase in depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness, especially mothers.

Since the recession hit in 2008, more than a quarter of a million Irish people have left the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of parents behind. While about half this number have returned in the period, and more will trickle back over the coming years, many others may never come back to live in Ireland again.

The Alone organisation has seen a significant increase in the number of older people looking to access their services over the past few years, many of whom have waved goodbye to children, Moynihan says.

“When your children emigrate, your support systems are eroded. The emotional support is affected, but also the physical support, if someone has mobility problems and needs someone to help them get out and about. When people lose these supports, they lose a little of their energy, of their drive to keep going.”

Moynihan says other research has shown that between 7-9 per cent of older Irish people suffer chronic loneliness, “which adversely affects their health, their mobility, their well-being. They say it ultimately shortens your life.”

People whose spouse or partner has died are especially vulnerable, because the loss of a child to emigration in that situation can be even harder to deal with, he says. “We have had referrals from emigrants who are concerned about their mothers or fathers who are isolated. We have also had older people come to us themselves, and may not have mentioned that to their kids because they don’t want to make a fuss, or make them feel guilty.”

Psychotherapist Trish Murphy, who writes the Tell Me About It advice column in this newspaper and has published a book this year about the challenge of retirement, says this reluctance among both parents and their emigrant children to admit to feeling sadness or loneliness is very common.

“There is a lot of contact between them now because of cheap calls and Skype, but they are unlikely to express how they are really feeling. They are protecting each other from the grief.”

She says the loss parents feel when a child emigrates is comparable to bereavement. “The stages people go through are very similar, but if someone dies, parents get a huge amount of support. With emigration, people might ask once or twice about the person who has gone and that’s it – the same supports aren’t there.”

She says women especially are often shocked by how they are affected when a child moves abroad. “Parents want children to go free and experience the world, but from a personal perspective they can suffer. There is huge fear there, especially if someone was to get ill, or if there is an accident.”

Moynihan believes we are yet to see the true impact of this wave of emigration on older people. “Most parents whose children have gone recently are in their 50s and early 60s now. What will happen in 10 years’ time if their children don’t return? If they are already feeling that sense of loss and loneliness, how will they feel when they are that bit older and their health isn’t as good, and they are even more isolated?”

Alan Barrett of the Economic and Social Research Institute, who co-authored the study, said the results show emigration should be a family-level consideration rather than purely an individual choice.

“If people anticipate that their emigration could have a negative effect on the mental health of their parents, they may decide against going,” he said. “It raises the question as to whether there are a whole load of people in Ireland who would have gone, but chose not to for this reason.”