Spanish dream sours for elderly expats

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The Independent Online

Joan and Fred Hunt were just like the tens of thousands of other Britons who, in the 1980s, followed their dream and retired to the glorious sunshine of Spain's Costa del Sol.

Joan and Fred Hunt were just like the tens of thousands of other Britons who, in the 1980s, followed their dream and retired to the glorious sunshine of Spain's Costa del Sol.

For almost a decade, they enjoyed the good life. Their retirement savings went further than in Britain and every day was whiled away under a seemingly eternally blue sky.

Then Fred Hunt was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the Hunt's retirement dream fell apart. Added to their despair was the realisation that the Spanish state could not offer them the kind of health and social services support they would have been guaranteed in Britain, leaving Mrs Hunt alone to cope with her husband's illness and subsequent death.

The Hunts' experience is not unique. A new study reveals the problems facing the generation of Britons who retired to Spain in their early 60s but who are now approaching 80: a lack of health and social services support made more difficult by both language and bureaucratic barriers.

The findings will be presented next week in Oxford at the annual conference of the British Society of Gerontology. The report is by Charles Betty, a 77-year-old PhD student who lives in the town of Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol. He interviewed 222 expatriates from the town, aged over 60.

"It is not all rosy," he said. "Those who are frail and elderly are suffering because of the lack of a state support system." He said the Spanish tradition is to look after the sick and elderly at home and this means residential care homes and hospices are practically non-existent. "Especially those aged 80 and over are faced with loneliness and a lack of suitable residential accommodation or care in the home," he said.

The problem for expatriates - there are between 300,000 and 400,000 pensioners living in Spain - was compounded by their inability to make themselves understood. Of those questioned, about 85 per cent had little or no knowledge of Spanish.

Worries over the future of older people in Spain led Age Concern to set up a series of offices there, the first opening in the Balearics six years ago. Judy Arnold-Boakes, president of Age Concern España, said that as long as people did their homework before emigrating, their time in Spain was usually a success.

But many who rushed headlong into buying properties and quitting Britain after enjoying a two-week resort holiday suffered problems. For instance, many expats had moved to Majorca, where she lives, believing the warm climate would be a panacea for arthritis. But "most of the islands are very humid and are not suitable for people coming here to alleviate arthritis".

Mike Bartram, British consul in Malaga, said the greatest difficulties were with expatriates whose partners had died during their time in Spain. "They are left isolated and they cannot easily return to the UK," said Mr Bartram.

After Fred Hunt died in 1991, aged 75, his widow, Joan, began the monumental task of fund-raising for a cancer hospice. She has raised £1m and needs another £1.5m to get the 12-bed in-patient service up and running in Benalmadena.

"It will be the first independent hospice in Spain," she said. "I was distressed at the time [of my husband's death]. You were looking for back-up facilities but until you need it, you don't realise it isn't there."