In their haste to move to the sun, many expats ignore the facts relating to getting old and the possibility of becoming infirm. There are now several generations of expats, who found themselves in a good financial position following the rapid rise in UK houses prices a decade or so ago, and others who managed to retire early on good pensions. Added to this were the advantages of exchange rates, which worked heavily in favour of British expats, meaning that those fortunate enough to be receiving an early pension, or in receipt of a private income, could maintain a much better standard of living in Spain and France than in the UK.
If we are fortunate, we get old, and for some expats this means returning to their countries of origin where perhaps they have maintained a second home, could be cared for by relatives or return to the UK care system and take advantage of retirement, care homes and sheltered accommodation. Other expats prefer to remain in their chosen country, taking advantage of the warm climate, which for many has eased conditions, such as arthritis, rheumatism and other age related conditions. However, the problems begin once one partner dies, or health issues become serious. What happens next for an elderly or infirm expat living in Spain?
It is still the custom and tradition for many Spanish families to look after their own. In many ways, this is one of the favourable characteristics of Spanish people and their culture. Generalisation is always dangerous, but traditionally the Spanish see it as their duty to look after the elderly and sick members of their families. It is still often the case that upon marriage, the young couple will continue to live in the family home, maybe in an apartment converted from a garage or in a newly built extension. As the family grows, grandparents tend to help to look after their grandchildren. Later in life, it is the young couple, now middle aged, who move into the main dwelling, with the elderly folk moving into the converted apartment built originally for the youngsters. It is a tradition that usually works well, and although this model of care is rapidly changing, particularly in Spanish cities and due to the pressures of modern living, it is still the pattern of life in rural Spain and in the Canary Islands.
As a result of care being provided by the family, unlike in the UK, residential homes for the elderly are largely unnecessary and unavailable. There are very few in the Canary Islands, and the ones that do exist are mostly run by religious orders of nuns, and cater mainly for the local Canarian population and not for elderly expats.
As a newspaper reporter in the Costa Blanca, I remember visiting a new privately built and operated residential home, designed and marketed specifically for the expat population. It offered a high standard of care in several languages. A clever entrepreneur had spotted a market opportunity, which came as a great relief to many of the resident expats that I interviewed at the time. However, such a development was unique in the area at the time and I was aware of a long waiting list for a place.
I am unaware of similar accommodation for the elderly expat being available in the Canary Islands; for example, most care is provided through the islands’ social services, which is now greatly reduced due to budgetary reductions. Other care is provided privately in homes through a variety of carers, registered or otherwise. Sadly, such services are often transitory, and not available on a long-term basis, which is important if the elderly expat comes to rely upon such services in their home. Overall, it is not a good position, and I suspect that this issue will become more serious as the expat population in many countries becomes older and more frail.