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Dr. Liesl Gambold

The baby boomers rejected convention in their youth, and now they are reinventing old age – abroad.

Anthropologist Liesl Gambold looks at the growing trend of retiring to a foreign country, especially among single women.

Dr. Gambold is an assistant professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology and a research associate at the European Union Centre of Excellence at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

The research findings appeared online inAnthropology & Aging Quarterly(34, Vol. 2, 2013).

To learn more, AHB caught up with Dr. Gambold in Halifax.

Ruth Dempsey: Were you surprised how many single women you encountered during your research?

Liesl Gambold: Yes, absolutely. It isn’t that I was ignoring the fact that women outlive men, but it was a surprise that these single women were embracing the challenges and pleasures of permanently relocating to a foreign country much more often than single retired men.

Initially, I thought that because I am a woman I was only meeting female retirees in the places where I was doing my research, but I have found that single women are just more willing to, or perhaps more in need of, relocating internationally. We tend to think of women as being vulnerable when traveling alone and, even more, so older women. Therefore, I expected to find more single men.

But we need to remember – and these women made it clear to me – that women are also very good at creating social connections and support networks. So these women were "alone", but they had an impressive number of other women and couples, to whom they could turn for advice and support.

RD: The women had moved to Mexico or southern France. Are these retirement hot spots?

LG: Southern France has been a retirement hot spot for decades. But it was more a situation of the wealthy from the United Kingdom or northern Europe moving seasonally to the Côte d’Azur, or the French Riviera.

The trajectory for non-French retirees who move to France has shifted as the demographic has changed. More retirees now look in the Dordogne or Languedoc-Roussillon regions because housing is so much more affordable. This became more important as more middle and upper-middle class retirees began wanting their permanent place in the sun, but they could manage it only if that place came at a lower price.

The story in Mexico is similar. Certain wealthy retirees would spend winters in popular coastal areas, but the transition to the growing retirement populations we see now in inland areas, such as Ajijic or San Miguel de Allende, were largely a function of affordability and some cultural history.

But international retirement migrants are moving far and wide. People I have interviewed told me of friends who chose to retire in Panama, Uruguay, Morocco, Croatia, etc., Some want to move to a place with a very solid expat infrastructure in which they can easily insert themselves, while others don’t mind being one of the few "old foreigners" living in a community.

RD: Many were driven by economic concerns. For example, Dorothy, 59, moved to San Miguel de Allende from Idaho, where she was able to live comfortably, and even save a little . . .

LG: Yes, this was another research finding that I did not expect to be quite so prominent a push-factor for these retirees.

But the fact of the matter is that, for most of the women I interviewed, economic concerns were absolutely a driving force behind their decision to relocate permanently. Let’s face it, if you have plenty of money, most would choose to keep their residence in their home country and spend half of the year somewhere else. Most would probably not choose to leave permanently.

But money is a concern, to greater and lesser degrees, for so many of these women. The cost of living in Canada, the United States or England can be quite high. They retire, look at what they have, what their savings or pension is and many had a moment of serious fright. "How can I live on this?" Well, somewhere else, somewhere further south, they found they could live on their retirement pension.

RD: Sandy had found it difficult to leave her daughters behind in Michigan, but eight years later, she had no regrets . . .

LG: She was a really inspiring woman because she didn’t strike me as your sort of "natural" explorer type. She lived a simple and fulfilling life in Michigan. But it piqued her interest to hear about someone else who was retired in Mexico and not having to struggle financially.

I think another factor was that Sandy did not want her daughters to end up being burdened by worrying about her or having to support her. Now, as she explained to me, she can live comfortably without worry, which is a huge relief to her. She has also started a new life she never dreamed she would have. With the Internet, she maintains close contact with her family and friends in Michigan.

RD: Money wasn’t the only driving force for these women. Seventy-year-old Denise longed for a new beginning.

LG: Absolutely. This is that "fear of the known" I refer to. Rather suddenly you are about to retire. You are happy at the prospect of your time being "your" time, but then you realize that your retired friends might already have ideas about how your time will be spent. They might already play tennis on Tuesdays and go out for lunch on Fridays. So, in their minds, you will just slot yourself into their routine.

And why wouldn’t you want to? Well, for some, this felt like a pressure they were soon to bear, and even the thought felt stifling. I think it depends largely on what kind of person you are and whether you find it easy to say no to your friends or to venture into new activities in a community in which you may have already spent years. Obviously, for Denise, it was easier just to leave and really build a new life for herself.

RD: Similarly, Marie, a dental assistant in Belgium before she retired to France, wanted to create a "troisieme âge" on her own terms . . .

LG: For many women they find they have spent the majority of their adult life thinking about and caring for others. Most have done so with a great sense of satisfaction and pride but, nevertheless, if they are faced with an opportunity to think about themselves, some will happily take it.

Many of the women I spoke to said that the experience of becoming an international retirement migrant was the most risky, self-centered and rewarding thing they had ever done. I think the fact that it seems so unexpected, both personally and culturally, makes it all the more rewarding when things work out.

RD: And Peggy, 73, wanted to reinvent herself. "If I’d stayed in England," she said. "I could have never started wearing hats, because amongst my friends and family, I was not a woman who wore hats."

LG: Ah, yes, Peggy. She is dear to me. When I met her she was roughly the same age as my mom so I tried to imagine my mom doing the same thing.

Peggy recognized an opportunity to do what she wanted but also to be whom she wanted to be. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these women were living some sort of false life previously, not at all. But I think we rarely realize how entrenched we are culturally and how this is both a calming feature of human life, but also one that comes with necessary constraints.

When we "act out of character", people think we are having some sort of crisis or we are ill. And knowing that our friends or family might make fun of us for changing is enough covert pressure to keep most of us just continuing on more or less as we always have.

RD: Some EU countries cover basic healthcare for retirees from other countries. How does this work?

LG: In 2010 the EU population aged 65 and older was approximately 87.5 million when baby boomers began retiring in growing numbers.

Each of the 28 member states is uniquely in charge of its own pension, healthcare and social service programs. However, some member states that recognized the tendency for their citizens to retire out of the country also quickly realized that this might not be such a bad thing.

Spain and southern France have long been popular seasonal retirement destinations for northern Europeans. But they have grown ever more popular as permanent retirement centers as baby boomers have sought and, one could argue, required retirement alternatives.

A European Commission demographer explained to me how Belgium and Spain had begun trying to simplify the process for Belgian retirees living permanently in Spain. Rather than deal with the mountains of paperwork being submitted by Belgians for reimbursement of healthcare costs incurred in Spain, the Belgian and Spanish governments were able to come up with a formula based on the number of registered, full-time Belgian retirees in Spain.

This plan was modified over the years in response to the growing number of Belgians retiring in Spain. In fact, 15 EU countries have arrangements whereby if you are receiving a pension from one of these, you are entitled to receive complete healthcare coverage in the EU country of your retirement if it differs from the pension-providing country.

RD: Do you think more single women will retire abroad in the future?

LG: Quite simply, I think that the fact that pension funds in many places are being threatened, and fewer people have been rigorously saving for retirement. This will mean that, more than ever before, the baby boomer retirees will suffer from economic hardship.

Since women outnumber and outlive men in this group, women will suffer proportionately more economically. While I think governments should do more to help assuage these hardships for our aging, unfortunately I do not think that there will be a rapid enough response from most governments to really make a difference.

And I do not necessarily think it is such a bad thing for those who might feel so inclined to move to a foreign country, thereby freeing up supports and services "at home", while being able to live with reduced economic stress.

Some say that this is a terrible idea, that the aged need their family nearby. But the reality is that more and more of us are aging apart from our families due to the vagaries of employment and our willingness to relocate for it.

If women can find a place where there is a supportive community and where they can live comfortably, I am all for it. It is a more proactive, and unconventional choice, but it is one that I think more and more women will make. We’ll see!