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Return migration in later life: experiences and insights of older people in Australia and Britain contemplating their final journey home


'My dread is that I will die before returning', read the posting on a BBC website message board that invited responses to a TV programme about ‘The ten pound poms’ - British citizens who emigrated to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s under the assisted package scheme.  Clearly, one such individual had a strong wish to return ‘home’ in later life and, intrigued, I sent a letter to the editors of two Australian newspapers, inviting relevant readers to contact me with their views on the subject of return migration.  I soon received emails and letters from over 50 older people, as well as a few care service providers.  These replies include biographical accounts and personal reflections that touch on issues of identity, social inclusion, memory and myth.  Nearly all correspondents are ‘torn’ by conflicting emotions as they consider whether the land of their birth and childhood or their adopted home is the place to fulfill third age plans and pass their final years. 

Through email and occasional phone contact, I have followed correspondents’ deliberations, including those of two correspondents who subsequently returned to the UK, who I have now interviewed in person.  In this brief article about my exploratory research (as yet unfunded), I focus on some of the reasons why older people think about return migration, the emotional impact of such reflection and the experiences of two returnees. 

Reasons for thinking about return migration

There appear to be at least four important themes encompassing older people’s motivation to return to their country of origin: family reconnection, inclusivity and belonging, memory and magnetism, and cultural landscapes.

1. Family reconnection - 
A number of correspondents have told me of their desire for reconnection with siblings and other family members in the UK.  In this regard, correspondents talk of the mutual support and close friendship that would consequently be available and how the younger generation in Australia cannot provide this, being busy with their own lives.  People also say that this interest in living near to family in the UK is acute if there are no siblings or family of similar age in Australia, or if widowed or otherwise alone, as suggested below:

I find when I return to England my social life improves, my father is still alive and I have three brothers and a sister…[and] friends who for varied reasons are single like myself

My husband has no family here and is very aware ‘time is running out’ and wants some quality time with his brothers, sisters and their families

2. Inclusion and belonging - 
A number of correspondents have told me they have never really settled or felt accepted in Australia, despite the decades living there.  Some speak of being aggrieved by the ‘pommy-bashing’ that still takes place and which exacerbates difference.  Others talk of always feeling English, Scottish or Welsh, and not truly belonging in Australia:

Australia has been very kind to us but my wife and I still seem unable to get England out of our system..Each time we visit it seems harder to return…we have many friends [in England] with a depth of friendship we don’t have and never have had in Australia...It is very hard to lose one’s Englishness

One or two correspondents have suggested that now they are widows, they are in a position to reverse the original decision by their husband to emigrate, which, according to one professional who contacted me, finally allows them to exercise self-determination by returning to their original home country:

As a nurse working in the community I come across elders contemplating returning to their country of birth...[and] have begun to realize that [they] only emigrated because of spouse pressure…they are now “free” to return

3. Memory and magnetism - 
When considering the idea of return migration, many respondents mention childhood memories and cherished moments, epitomising a sense of ‘home’ that people keep in their minds, an important link with their native place and one that carries deep emotional resonance:

Some of my yearning to go back was probably a yearning for a simpler lifestyle of youth, for “places” that were learned at crucial times of personal development, for values that were similarly ingrained

Others talk of memories and nostalgia as enticing fantasies but ultimately mythical renderings of a changed reality:

Why should I, a boy bullied at school to the point of tears (not allowed in a working class miner’s house) wish to return to a memory that no longer exists? As far as I can see the answer can only be the mythical soil

A number of correspondents use the word ‘magnet’ to describe a homing instinct that is a strong and almost overwhelming force:

When I return [from the UK] I cannot look at photos I have taken, I miss it so much.  It seems to be like a magnet, calling me back

4. Cultural landscapes - 
Older people who have contacted me speak of their interest in return migration as something that has significantly increased following retirement, when they have more time to reflect on their priorities in their third age and beyond.  In this respect, correspondents speak of their identity with, and yearning for, their native place, referring to the culture, history or landscapes that they miss:

I think the countryside draws you.  The history of the country, the architecture

Statements are often made that combine all these aspects and more than one correspondent referred to war poet Rupert Brook’s poem ‘The Soldier’ to sum up their inner feelings.  The relevant lines of this poem are:  ‘If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England’.  One correspondent said this poem should be renamed ‘The Migrant’. 

The emotional impact of thinking about return migration

It did not surprise me that, given all the thought processes and issues involved, correspondents would have experienced profound feelings when considering the subject of return migration.  What did surprise me was their willingness to open up about the emotional and psychological effects.  A number of people indicated that contemplating the possibility of return migration brings up strong emotions:

I am depressed, lonely, miss my family, have a lack of interest in my work, become reclusive and generally want to be back in the UK

There is also puzzlement and sometimes continuous deliberation:

..the dilemma facing the migrant has been called] “geographical schizophrenia”….for most of our lives we are wrestling with who we are and where we belong

Occasionally, correspondents have said that the process of engaging in research on the subject has helped clarify their thoughts or needs:

[research contact] has helped me very much in crystallizing my own thoughts regarding returning home.  And, for that I’d like to thank you very much

Returnees’ accounts

I will, very briefly, draw out some points raised by two returnees whom I have visited.  The first told me of unforeseen ‘stressers’ that accompanied the ‘big move’ back, including pension hassles, housing purchase difficulties, money worries and dealing with a sibling’s emotional breakdown.  There have also been difficulties with regard to displacement:

After finally settling in the house and I guess ‘stopping’ at last, I became depressed.  Felt alone and displaced…  Couldn’t see my daughter... I realized friends would have their own busy lives and increased families, but I think we have been away so long, some forgot we are back

The second returnee has so far experienced entirely positive outcomes and is clearly ecstatic to be ‘home’ in the countryside in which she grew up:

What really decided me was seeing again the countryside that had filled my childhood yearnings...The effect was overpowering, a physical thing, a cellular thing really…After 29 years and eight months in Australia, I had come back… There is something childlike about the whole thing, as if in a way the decision was not mine but that of somebody I trusted…There is also an element of reclaiming my birthright which is involved and which I only passingly understand.  But it is important


As we have seen, the prospect of return migration in later life is meaningful and timely, conjuring up feelings that can be powerful and persistent.  Retirement migrations are important to social gerontologists as we know that an increasing number of older people are living or returning from abroad and there is some evidence that they have not always thought through possible consequences.  Additionally, there has been little empirical research that considers social and psychological factors influencing return migrants’ motivations or their actual experiences following return.  I hope to find the time and money (suggestions welcome) to develop this tentative research, to carry out more interviews with returnees to Britain and to visit Australia and interview individuals, families and professionals there, so as to explore in detail the personal, health and social care implications for those who feel they must return ‘home’, while there is time.

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