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Interview: Homeland Beckons Older Immigrants


Dr. John Percival

One man, who spent half his life in Australia, plans to return to England. Similarly, an older woman is torn between rejoining her sister in England and staying in Australia for her four grandsons.

So why do long-time immigrants want to return to their country of origin?

In Return Migration in Later Life: International Perspectives, social gerontologist John Percival shines a light on the complexity of the immigrant experience around the world. Even after decades in their host country, immigrants in Australia, as in other countries, feel an emotional "pull" home to their native country in later life.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Percival in the school of social and community medicine at the University of Bristol in Bristol, U.K.

Ruth Dempsey: The people in your study left England more than 30 years ago. Why did they leave?

John Percival: Some moved to Australia as children when their families emigrated there. The adults in my study left England for various reasons, including the desire to escape austerity in post-war Britain. They were looking for secure and better paid employment. Some wanted to start a new life away from personal troubles, and others set off in a spirit of adventure.

RD: What did they say about their years in Australia?

JP: Most spoke favourably about their lives in Australia. They said that good work opportunities, a good lifestyle and climate had made the country a great place to raise and educate a family. And they were grateful to Australia for these positive experiences.

A minority of participants were more critical of their host country. They said that they had been treated as outsiders in their communities, never fully accepted as equals, and sometimes derided as "whingeing poms" (derogatory term for English immigrants who regularly complain).

RD: So what triggered their desire to return to England?

JP: Many people said the desire to return home was triggered by an emotional "pull," a longing to go back to the country of their roots, where they felt they truly belonged. This pull had become more profound in later life. One woman talked about an affinity for homeland that strikes an inner chord and resonates with something deeply personal.

Family connections were important, too. Many told me of their desire to reconnect with siblings, other family members and of a desire to strengthen these ties. This seemed to be more keenly felt by those who were divorced, widowed or had no children.

A 55-year-old school teacher mentioned a network of friends in England, who he has kept in touch with throughout his years in Australia, and who he considers will be friends at the end.

Also, retirement played a role. People simply had more time. Their children had gone on to live lives of their own. One woman remarked that it was a very good time to return because no one was depending on her, and she didn't want to look back and feel, "I should have done it."

RD: Some wanted to return to England but they couldn't face leaving their grandchildren behind . . .

JP: Yes, this tension was apparent in many of the interviews, as people spoke of being torn between a yearning to be back in their country of origin and an equally strong bond with their grandchildren. Those who could afford it, decided that one way to resolve the tension was to establish two bases and spend time in both home and host country. Meanwhile, others endured a great deal of soul-searching as they tried to reach a decision that they could live with.

RD: The decision was stressful and emotionally draining . . .

JP: Yes, many were torn by conflicting emotions, particularly people with children and or grandchildren in Australia. They knew they would miss them greatly, especially if they were unable to return to see them regularly.

Also, people were reluctant to discuss their thoughts with friends or even family for fear they would be castigated as disloyal.

In addition, there were a few participants whose Australian spouses did not share their enthusiasm about relocation to England. Naturally, this affected their relationship.

RD: At least one participant left it too late . . .

JP: That's right. By the time one 84-year-old man had decided to take the plunge and return to his home country, he realized, after a short time in England, that he was too old to re-settle there. Also, his wife decided she could not leave Australia to join him, so he went back to Australia.

RD: Did people say where they wanted to be buried?

JP: Some people identified their country of origin as their preferred final resting place. One woman told me that she had asked her daughters to make sure that some, if not all, her ashes are returned to England to rest in English soil.

RD: Two women in your study did return to England. How did things work out for them?

JP: June lives in the north of England and has settled well. Initially, she had some difficulty trying to make sense of the different pension, utility and transport systems.

June had an overwhelming desire to return to England, a yearning that dominated all aspects of her life, and one that she could not resist. Over time, she has developed a more balanced view of her commitments. She told me that she was at ease in the knowledge that she can go back to Australia at any time should she wish to. Meanwhile, she plans regular trips back to visit her grown sons and friends there.

A second woman, an Australian called Wynne, returned to England with her English husband who was desperate to reconnect with his siblings in the south of England, while there was still time. They had both spent lengthy periods back in England on previous occasions, but they made the move permanent after Peter retired.

Peter said that he had never really felt accepted or socially included in Australia. He disliked the derision directed at him, as an Englishman, by many Australians. The couple settled back in England reasonably well, although this followed an unexpected period of isolation, as the couple realized that the lives of family and friends in England had moved on, and the couple were not as integral to those lives as they thought they would be.

But things gradually improved, as they made new friends through volunteering in their local community. When Wynne's father subsequently died, she went back to Australia to organize things so that her mother could return with her to live near the couple in England.
"return migration in later life" by Dr. John Percival
RD: Finally, your book is full of valuable insights. What tips do you have for immigrants pondering the return home.

JP: Here's three:

1.Talk to close friends and family, both in home and host countries, so that emotional and practical challenges can be aired and fully considered.

2. Pin down the nuts and bolts of relocation. Familiarize yourself with pension, housing, leisure and support systems. Try to spend a trial period in the home country before making a permanent move to make sure the reality matches expectations.

3. Build in a strategy for possible change of heart. So, if return migration does not work out as well as expected, there is an alternative plan. Maintaining connections with the host country can be an important part of this strategy.