A place in the sun loses its shine: Ian MacKinnon reports on the plight of elderly Britons who retired to Spain

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The Independent Online
JOAN PELLATT, 76, gazes out on the scene through the picture window of her apartment in Nerja, along the coast from Malaga on Spain's Costa del Sol. The spring weather is fine, though a little chilly. The stone pavement, along the shores of the Mediterranean, is five floors below. But, without help, it is impossible for her to enjoy a walk. Her sight is failing, a stroke has left her lame and shuffling.

'If I could be certain I'd be dead when I hit the ground, I'd jump off the balcony,' she said. 'I wish I could go. I wish I was dead. I don't want to forget all the good times and I don't want to go on living like this.'

Joan Pellatt was attracted to retirement in Nerja by low living costs and sunshine. Now, like 300,000 other retired Britons in southern Spain and the Balearic Islands, she can enjoy neither. She can rarely get out to enjoy the sunshine; inflation has doubled the cost of living in five years; and pensions, paid in sterling, have declined in value as the peseta has strengthened.

Some retired people, as their health deteriorates, have found that Spain, with the traditional extended family to care for the elderly, has little in the way of social services. The death of a partner in these circumstances can be catastrophic.

But they are trapped. Their life savings are sunk in their homes. With property prices falling and the market stagnant, they have no hope of selling up and returning to Britain. The result, according to some British charities, is a growing underclass of destitute elderly.

'The problem is going to get worse and worse,' said John Dove, British consul for the Alicante area inhabited by 25,000 expatriates. His greatest fear is for those with low income, perhaps only a state old age pension, who moved to the 'Noddy boxes' - tiny terraced apartments on sprawling hillside developments near Alicante.

On these urbanizacions, with their 'real' fish and chip shops and pubs serving English beer to English customers, most have little to do with the Spanish and even fewer speak the language.

Already Mr Dove has to contend with a steady trickle of disturbing cases of those who are no longer able to look after themselves, often through Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

'Up and down the coast there are a number of instances of people in difficulties,' he said. 'They are physically incapable of looking after themselves. But it's simply not possible to get people into Spanish homes. There are just not enough of them. It's worst in the small villages in the mountains where there are no social services at all.'

In the past two months he has become involved in the case of a senile 82-year-old woman living alone in nearby Calpe with no relatives to look after her, though Spanish neighbours have helped. 'She is getting worse,' said Mr Dove. 'She has no memory now, and if she's not supervised she does stupid things. She's a danger to herself, her condition can't even be stabilised. We've been trying to get her into a home, but she can remember that her husband is buried in Spain and she doesn't want to leave him.'

In the most desperate cases the only solution is somehow to get those in difficulties back to Britain for care by the state. But a new uncertainty has entered the already complex equation.

Changes to the financing of aid for the elderly in Britain dictate that the local authority in which someone is 'ordinarily resident' will foot the bill. Thus, even those able to return to Britain where they may not have lived for more than 20 years, could find a questionmark over who is to pay for the day, residential or nursing home care.

The Department of Health has said that the Secretary of State will arbitrate in wrangles. Yet, in Spain, far from alarm at the problems that lurk just below the surface, many dispute it even exists. Indeed, most are content.

The Rev Ion Davies, Anglican chaplain on the Costa Blanca, comes up against those in difficulties. 'You find people with no money and no relatives. You know there's a problem but they won't let on. You know that things are not all right.'

South of Alicante, near Torrevieja, Heather Brealey has to battle to overcome people's natural defence mechanisms. She retired with her husband to a development, grandly named Eagle's Nest, but often deprived of electricity and water because of a five-year legal problem with the builder. 'A lot of people realise they've made a mistake, but won't admit it. They don't want their children to know they have made a 'boobie' in coming out here.'

Drink is a consolation for some, according to doctors she has worked closely with. 'People turn to drink a lot. They are bored stiff so they drink all the time. It's a dreadful problem out here because it's so cheap.'

Equally, Tom Bury, organiser of a Costa Blanca support group further north, at Moraira, highlighted the combustible mixture of cheap booze and social problems for people who have little to do all day.

'Yes, we have to contend with the odd alcoholic. We had one lady who was divorced. Her husband just left her in her sixties. She went over the top and was in a bad way. She was alone in her flat and the concierge found her. She'd collapsed of malnutrition and dehydration.'

Paulette Hydon's husband died of a heart attack four years ago and left her alone in their hillside villa near Benitachell.

'People do drink a lot out here,' she said. 'And when your circumstances change like mine, well, you think, I'm hungry, but I can't be bothered cooking for myself. I'll have a gin and tonic instead.' Mrs Hydon, 47, who moved to Spain with her husband 10 years ago, said: 'I think we made a mistake by not thinking it through properly. The possibility of losing your partner, for instance. I'm very lonely even though I have got good friends. But you can't spend your life living on their doorsteps. You don't want to be a blasted nuisance.'

She is luckier than many in having two grown-up children who visit regularly, but her dearest wish is that she could return to England, to 'pack fish in Grimsby' if necessary.

'I've had enough of Spain now,' she said. But a major obstacle is the death duties she would have to pay on the house - if she could find a buyer.

Meanwhile she will have to struggle along on her husband's police pension that was slashed by two-thirds, to slightly more than pounds 200 (35,000 pesetas) a month, when he died. At 43, she did not qualify for a widow's pension. Against that, her monthly outgoings come to pounds 383.

'My sister and father help me, but I don't really like to tell them. It was very different when we came here 10 years ago. Petrol, gas, everything was so cheap. We could have meals out three times a week. We lived in luxury. But then things began to go up. Now sometimes I've no idea how I'm going to make ends meet. It gets really depressing out here.'

Joan Pellatt's desire is to remember the unspoiled Spain she first fell in love with more than 20 years ago, a country of fishing villages and the gaiety of bars.

'I came to Nerja on holiday with a friend who had discovered it on a round-Europe trip with her boyfriend and really liked it. I asked the bar owners, two Englishmen called Tony and Richard, to find me a flat and I've been here ever since. I've never been back to England. I had such a lovely time. I used to go to the bars and had lots of nice friends.'

The stroke she suffered four years ago put paid to all that, even though rising living costs had already taken their toll. The flat she bought with an inheritance when she arrived was sold to a friend at half its market value on the agreement that she could see out her days there. The cash from the sale was used to pay pounds 340 a month for the carer who comes each day to dress her and make meals.

That money ran out some time ago and her British old age pension was insufficient to cover the costs. With no relatives to help she was worried about how she could survive before two British charities stepped in to make up the difference.

Yet, even in her bare, curtainless, one-bedroom apartment, huddled over gas fire, the frail old woman has no wish to return to England to a nursing home: 'I might not like the people there, and then where would I be? I get terribly lonely being here on my own. I've not got many friends left. They've mostly died.

'But if I'm going to be ill, I'd rather be ill here than in England. But, really, I'd rather be dead.'

(Photographs omitted)