Caring Currents

Financially Stretched Seniors Look to Mexico for Assisted Living

Last updated: Dec 02, 2008

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about "boomerang seniors" -- elders whose retirement options took a big hit along with the economy and were moving in with adult children rather than into costly assisted living or other retirement communities.

Some seniors, it turns out, are taking just the opposite approach to belt-tightening. Instead of moving in, these folks are moving out -- in some cases, way out, across borders, to assisted living communities in Mexico.

According to a recent report in the Dallas Morning News, a full-service unit in a south-of-the-border assisted living facility runs about $1,100 a month, roughly a third what it would cost in the U.S. Given that the vast majority of retirees must pay for care out-of-pocket -- and that the two major sources of retirement funds for many, home equity and stock-based retirement portfolios, are plummeting -- it's not surprising that Mexican developers are rushing to build new units to meet anticipated demand.

Mexico as a retirement destination is nothing new -- estimates vary widely, but many thousands of older Americans already call the neighboring country home. Until recently,  though, those who did so tended to be active retirees, looking for affordable beachfront living, even adventure. Today, as increasing numbers of older and more frail retirees literally can't afford care on American soil, Mexican entrepreneurs are converting homes and hotels into assisted living facilities as quickly as they can to meet rising demand.

Lake Chapala in Southwestern Mexico, already home to the largest concentration of expat North American retirees in the world, has become a hub, with five recently-built retirement communities clustered on the lake's shore. The Mexican Association of Retirement Communities has optimistically identified another 50 Mexican cities as "ideal" sites for expat-oriented retirement communities.

For elders who need care but can't afford U.S. rates, "outsourcing" retirement may be something worth considering. But there are plenty of questions to ask before buying a plane ticket and plunking down a deposit in pesos:

  • Where will your relative get medical care? Mexico has both a national health care system (which Americans can buy into for just a few hundred dollars a year) and private hospitals and clinics, many with U.S. trained doctors, but the care available in big cities is much different from that found outside them. You'll want to investigate the quality of services near where your relative is considering moving.
  • What if something goes wrong? Assisted living is relatively new in Mexico, where intergenerational households are the norm, and the new communities springing up are largely unregulated.
  • How will your relative stay in touch with friends and family? Rent may be cheap in Mexico but airfares are going up, and how often family members will be able to visit is worth considering.
  • What about the language barrier? While staff in facilities that cater to Americans are likely to speak English, if your relative speaks little or no Spanish, will that contribute to feelings of isolation that often accompany any move?

These questions, of course, have to be balanced against the huge cost savings offered by Mexican assisted living communities. For seniors who find themselves between a rock and hard place these days when it comes to finding a way to pay for the care they need, the road south just may be a way out.    

Image by Flickr user nick farnhill, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.