January 5, 2015

SnowBirds and the Family That Stays Behind

A few weeks ago I received an email from a reader who asked a question that I had never given much thought to before she raised the issue. Upon reflection, it struck me as not only a legitimate question but one that needed a follow up on  Satisfying Retirement.

Here is what she asked:
I’m wondering if you may have or know of any information in form of articles, a support web page or support group for Canadian families of snowbirds who are left behind. I am struggling with some issues and want to see if there are others who are in the same shoes as I am. I’d like to see how they cope, deal with and come to terms with the way in which we are left to deal with the life that snowbirds leave behind. It would be nice to share and communicate with other families - left behind.

Her question deals with one of the key elements of a successful retirement: relationships. In her case, and with many others, the relationship is disrupted when some members head to Arizona or Florida, or whether they go to escape the cold and snow for months at a time. While she is asking about Canadian groups, her question is really universal in importance.

I do not know anything about the particular concerns that prompted this email when (probably) parents or grandparents head south. But, I can speculate. There could be a natural concern for the health and well being of the snowbirds. Being away from a family support system and regular medical providers entails some risk.

In very close families (I can relate!) having important members gone for months at a time can leave others unhappy and without important interpersonal contact. Sharing good and bad news by email, phone calls, or even Skype video contact is just not as satisfying. Missing a grandchild's performance in a school play, or helping a son or daughter celebrate a new job are some of the missed moments that cannot be recaptured.   

Importantly, this reader is not asking for help in convincing the snowbirds to stay home. She is asking for feedback on how others deal with the extended absences of loved ones and the complications that arise.


On a personal note, I can relate to some of what this email expresses. Betty and I have decided that being away from our family for more than two months is just not workable. Luckily we don't have to escape the snow, but we do try to miss some of the brutal Phoenix summer heat by heading to Portland or San Diego in the RV. Originally we thought that 3-4 months on the road would work for us, but that just isn't the case. Being away from loved ones for that long doesn't make any of us happy. We all miss each other too much.

Now I am turning to you. What solace or comfort can you offer to not only this reader but others who have the same concerns? What suggestions do you have that might make being left behind easier?  Are you aware of any web sites or support groups that exist? When a snowbird leaves, what do those who stay behind have to do to cope?


30 comments:

  1. I am grateful for the support we have when we head south for 3 months. My disabled brother and elderly, frail mother are having their needs met by others while we are away. During the rest of the year, I am the primary support for them. The 3 months away helps me to recharge for the rest of the year.

    You are right, Bob. It is all about relationships. It's hard to speculate what the writer meant without hearing more details. Is she feeling taken advantage of?

    As with all conflict, perspective taking is important. If both sides are able to take the other person's perspective, it can go a long way towards better communication and understanding.

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    1. I know when Betty and I are gone for 2 months I worry about my Dad's care and well being even though he is in an excellent assisted living facility.I dread the call that says he has fallen or had a major medical issue when I am in an RV 1,000 miles away. Our two daughters live in town so there would be some immediate family support but that doesn't eliminate the concern.

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  2. Good post. I do wonder though if the question had to do with having to deal with winter home maintenance, etc. for the snowbird? My Mom wasn't a snowbird but in her 90's my brother had to take care of her home as well as his in the bitter cold of winter.

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    1. It is hard to completely shut down a home for a period of time, whether winter or summer. Someone trustworthy must be available to keep the property maintained and checked for problems. That may be the original commenter's issue, but tend to think it is more an emotional issue.

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  3. I don't have immediate family members head south but I do have a number of immediate friends who head to AZ/CA from AB for part of the winter. One of my friends would concur with Carole; she gets respite from the responsibility of caring for her aged mother the other 10 months of the year. I feel somewhat disconnected from them when they're all gone. I may not have seen them daily while they were at home but just knowing they're there, close at hand, makes a difference. It is an opportunity to nurture other relationships and engage in other activities. Having a variety of interests helps. There's an old saying about not putting all your eggs in one basket, which alludes to having a wide support system. And finally, if you can't beat them, join them, if possible. I'm thankful for the friends and family who open their winter homes to me. Without knowing all the details of this request, I'm wondering if this person is feeling put upon by the folks who head south. does the solution rest in knowing one's limitations, communicating about other solutions, being assertive - not necessarily "snowbird issues" but life issues.

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    1. You raise valid questions, Mona, and excellent insight. And, for purposes of this blog it almost doesn't matter what the original concern was. We are exploring all sorts of options and sides of the problems with these responses so many folks can share how the departure of a family member can be dealt with.

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  4. Bob, I might be off base here, but this post reminds me of a recent conversation I had with two friends about expectations. The consensus was that adult children often take advantage of parents (childcare, financial assistance and free lodging were mentioned), but seldom offer assistance to the parents. The tables can be turned, tho, when aging parents expect their kids to keep the homefires burning while they're away. Like most parents, we've given our kids a lot of help, but haven't needed much help from them...YET. Makes me wonder if it's a common problem. Honest, open communication is an ongoing requirement to keep relationships healthy. Seems like a big dose of respect helps, too. Looking back, I was blessed to have a great brother who shared the care/concerns of our parents. Their final years were some of the toughest days of my life, tho. What I know for sure is you can only put one foot in front of the other and do your best to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. It can get pretty dark before dawn, but if you hold on to your family, friends, and faith, you can come out on the other side.

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    1. Nicely said, Pam. That very tough time when our parents become our responsibility faces many of us, and is really uncharted water. Also in today's society adult children seem to take longer than normal to launch themselves (think of the move, Failure to Launch), or live far away from their parents when they need care and support.

      Communication is crucial but so is a real sense of caring and responsibility.

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  5. As someone who travels a great deal between two places, and who was considering snowbird-ism, I can see this conflict. Even without ill parents or grandchildren. It's one of the reasons I have not become a snowbird,so far, and plan to only take shorter vacations to warmer climes. Were I to vacate the area to, say, Florida, for three months or more, I would miss too much, and my family will miss me. I observe this now, with the couple of snowbirds in my social group. Its not the same saying hi on face book, and since both we and they have a bit of adjustment time when they return, I can only assume the same is true on the other end.

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    1. Betty and I have made the same decision: a few months away is our limit. Without that feeling I am pretty sure we'd live in Hawaii for 4-6 months each year but the commute kills you. Now, even though we live only 45 minutes from the grandkids even that seems too far.

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  6. Bob, this was one of those questions and posts that led me to say "that's it--that's what I've been thinking!". As you know, I don't comment often, but this is a topic that has been brewing in my mind for some time. Growing up in the South, I really don't remember knowing anyone who left town for weeks or months at the time every year. My wife and I started thinking about traveling when I retired 4 years ago. Through a series of decisions we finally decided to relocate to New England two years ago to live near our adult son. That decision has been a good one and we are very happy. After living here for a couple of years now we have come to know several retired couples and individuals who leave (usually for Florida) every year for 1, 2 or many more months. At first my thoughts were "how nice that they can do that". But after getting involved in our church and other local organizations and friendships, I can see another side to this snowbird thing. I probably cannot articulate it exactly but my thoughts have something to do with responsibility and leaving that behind for others to "take up the slack" every year. These snowbirds are not my family members so I know that I'm expressing a different thought than the reader who asked the original question but I think the trail leads along a similar path. It has to do with our lives and whether or not disconnecting from our friends, family members and other activities for lengthy periods EVERY YEAR is--even in a small way--somewhat self centered. And, yes, I realize we are all free to pursue whatever activities and pleasures we wish and I support that. But I must admit that the thought has crossed my mind that if my wife and I were to ever consider the "snowbird" life, I would feel that I would need to almost totally "disconnect" from either location. I just can't see me feeling good about getting closely involved in either place only to pack up and leave after a few months each year. As much as we would like to have it all, I just don't think it is possible to live completely--really completely--in more than one location. If I ever get to the point where I dislike the "snow" and winter weather that much or it becomes that much of a problem for whatever reason then I would just have to relocate year round, not just when the weather was undesirable. Because for me, the weather may be part of my life but it is only a part, the other things (people, activities, responsibilities) trump weather.

    Great topic! And like most stimulating topics, I'm sure it will generate many perspectives. That's what good blogging is about.

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    1. I feel the way you do. Not only family, but also friends and those who depend upon you to be there for church or volunteer work are left in the lurch. Of course, forget about holding down even a part time job, unless it is seasonal and lasts only a month or two.

      At the same time, it is our life and we must do what we feel satisfies and fulfills us. To live only for others doesn't work long term.

      So, that leaves a rather "hi, neighbor" type relationship in your two home areas. The sense of someone having your back or being part of your life is probably lost. I know a few couples who snowbird in AZ and they seem to overcome that problem by staying very busy in clubs and activities. But, those relationships are not as substantial as the ones at home.

      All in all, I am very glad the reader raised the question because it is important to think about. We affect others' lives as they affect ours. Just packing up and going throws that delicate balance somewhat out of whack.

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  7. This isn't an issue of mine, except the aspect of closing up a house/home for long periods and trying not to be overly concerned about what might happen while I'm away. But I did locate an article on the web which does address this issue. I don't know if this blog will let the link show though. I did wonder if "left behind" might be wondering whether sometimes she or he should possibly be "taken along" or "invited down." That is briefly mentioned in this article.

    http://fswgtyblog466566af10.blogspot.com/2010/11/snowbird-intergenerational-family.html


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    1. That article you give the link for is excellent. It deals directly with many of the issues raised so far on this post. I urge others to copy and paste the link that B.E. provides.

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  8. We have given up our snowbird dream as both my parents are in assisted living with Dr appointments that we must attend with them. My sister, who said she would help, moved to Oregon this summer leaving my husband and me to care for my parents. Snowbirds was our Plan A and unfortunately, we didn't have a Plan B which has now hit us in the face.

    We don't have an RV so can't do the 1-2 months get away. Husband just retired and here we sit in the cold weather. Another topic for you later on, Bob, "Disappointment when Plan A Isnt Possible".

    My parents ARE the people left behind and in our case Asst Living can't meet all their Dr appointment needs. I am probably off topic, but wanted to add my thoughts to your great post.

    Sue in Colorado

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    1. My dad's assisted living facility is good, but you are right: there are things they don't provide. He is very uncomfortable taking the facility-provided bus for trips to the grocery or drug stores. He would not get into a cab for a ride to a doctor in a million years.

      His memory is poor and he gets confused easily if his routine is disturbed. I wouldn't want him on any type of public transportation; I doubt he would make it back home. So, I take him to his doctor appointments, go shopping for him when he needs something, and make sure his prescriptions are filled and picked up as he needs them.

      That all keeps me close to home, requires me to buy him 3 months worth of supplies, or press my daughters into service when we are away.

      I like your post suggestion. I'll keep it handy and see where it leads.

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  9. When we leave our Washington home for the winter, we have someone living in our house while we're gone, so the place doesn't have to be shut down.

    When we leave our Arizona home for the summer, we have someone taking care of our house.

    I keep in touch with my Washington people by phone, texts, email or Facebook. It's more like I'm on a long tether than that I'm gone.

    Arizona friends are easy to make if you live in a senior community (ours is an RV resort where we own a park model). We're glad to see our friends each year on our return, but don't communicate much with any of them out of season. That seems to be the way it works.

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    1. Good input, Linda. I was hoping you'd add your perspective with your summer home in Washington and winters with the sunshine in Arizona.

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  10. Sue brought up something for another blog post. How does the child left behind have a satisfying retirement while caring for aging parents? In almost every family it seems that marriage or career choices cause most of the children to move to other states, leaving one child who marries locally to assume the responsibility of aging parents. I was the child who moved away and I did as much as possible to help my sister, but I still feel guilty that she bore most of the responsibility. The same thing happened with my husband's family. His younger sister was the only one living close enough to care for the aging parents. How do siblings balance all of these responsibilities and still maintain healthy relationships and how much responsibility do we, as aging parents, need to assume so that we don't eventually become a burden to that child of ours who's living nearby? Should we be willing to move closer to the ones out of state and at what point do we make this decision and still have our own satisfying retirement?

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    1. The devil is in the details. My brothers live between 1,000 and 1,500 miles away and see Dad only once every year or two. They cannot actively participate in his care or financial management and I accept that. The benefits of having my daughters grow up with a set of grandparents living near them, and Betty and I enjoying my parents' company when they were alive or active outweighs the hassles of being the only son in town to watch over things.

      Mom and dad spent several decades of their lives carrying for us; I have no problem in reversing the role now.

      How do I balance keeping my own life on track? The retirement community takes care of most of the important stuff so I only have to take care of minor issues.Dad encourages us to go and assures us he is well taken care of. So far, that has worked well.

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  11. Great topic that deserves discussion and reflection. The original questioner seemed to me to be a bit miffed that they were left behind, whether its because of the extra responsibility,the removal of support (think babysitting, borrowing money), or the green monster, jealousy. Not unlike getting an adult child to move out or take full responsibility for their own life. Moving somewhere else for a few months can be a real eye opener for both sides.

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    1. I hesitate to interpret the reason behind the original question but I am pleased it has generated raising an issue that certainly affects many. What I find interesting are the variety of reasons and approaches the snowbird separation can cause.

      Bottom line? Communication of needs and fears with a recognition that each of us has the primary responsibility to control our own life's path.

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  12. About 10 to 12 years ago my wife suggested to her sister they take turns calling one another every Thursday. I think in that time they have not been in touch with one another, for a variety of reasons, less than 20 times, and if one or the other has not called by Friday or Saturday, one of them will say, "Was it my turn to call and I forgot?"

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    1. Regular communication is the key for those who go and those left behind. I think of my son-in-law who used to be in the Navy. After getting married he was gone twice for 6 month stretches to the Middle East. He and my daughter kept their sanity and relationship by constant e-mailing, phone calls, and video calls.

      Eventually both decided the Navy lifestyle wasn't fair to the children and he became a civilian. But for those few years he was gone for 6 months at a time and depended on regular contacts and shared experiences to keep things together.

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  13. A great conversation. Bob, I am glad you broached this topic. The responses indicate that "left behind" is a real issue for many reasons.

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    1. The last few posts prove to me that even after 4 years of covering retirement, there are still topics and areas of concern that need to be explored.

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  14. I do not know of a support group for this but wonder if a local community center or house of worship might be able to connect her with others who have snowbirds that go away. My next door neighbor is a snow bird and the RV was gone today. I miss them already as they are good friends and a wonderful local resource - I had a question about a local mechanic and don't want to bother them when they are trying to get away from it all. If the writer is left with a lot of responsibilities, she might need to enlist some assistance or outside help during the months the snowbirds are gone.

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    1. Good ideas, Sunshine (love the name!). It really depends on what the original commenter's concerns were but, both local community centers (esp. senior centers) and a local church may have contacts that would prove helpful.

      Thanks!

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  15. From a British pov - we don't do "snowbirds" here basically (well...only to a very small extent of a few British people having prolonged holidays in warmer climates). However, what we do have (and I'm one of them personally) is people being priced out of their own home areas and having to move permanently (not just for a few months per year) to somewhere else in our country and...yes...it does create problems. Both for the leavers and the stayers.

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  16. I know for myself, I feel somewhat abandoned by my parents. It is emotional. And no, they do not provide any financial assistance, babysit kids (they are grown) or support me in any way. It is better with cell phones and texting so affordable now. It feels like a completely selfish way of life to me. It would be great to be able to join them, but we have jobs and responsibilities year round so that isn't possible.

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