Growing old abroad

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Many people dream of retiring abroad. For those of us who already are abroad, it may seem premature to think about the implications of spending our own retirement years away from home. In fact, there are many expats that see ‘old age’ as a time to return to theor roots. However, the are some points we might like to consider.

generationsIntercultural couples might never have thought about whose ‘home’ will be the one where they rest their bones. Couples who share one culture, as well as individuals may face the prospect of reverse culture shock. And some of us may even find we lose our acquired languages.


Here’s the difference

In most cases couples or individuals that choose to wait with moving abroad until they retire have had a lifetime of building a solid community back home, consisting of children, neighbours, as well as friends and family. If the retirees need to return, as many do, for health reasons or because of a bereavement, then that ‘home’ based support will hopefully stand them in good stead.

In contrast, those of us who have been wandering the globe since our twenties or thirties will more likely have patches of support networks dotted all around the globe. Of course, there are also people who have built up a more mono-culturist network, but often those people will have made fewer international moves. And if we have children, this next generation often catches the ‘international virus’ and so they may be living far and wide around the globe, not ready to take on ageing parents.

While that may make us more vulnerable, we are also more used to working it out on our own. And if you’re a couple, you are more used to falling back on each other. In addition, internationals often have the emotional and financial resources to be creative. Our experience of packing up and moving on will make any ‘final’ moves in old age ‘just another move’ and not the challenge it may be for those who are retiring abroad for the first time.

Cultural customs and language

My grandfather used to say, ‘everyone wants to grow old, but no one wants to be old.’ He lived to the ripe old age of 93. But while we all hope to grow old strong and healthy and  just drop dead in our garden one day, this is highly unlikely. So we need to think about where we want to be when we need that extra care and support. Do we want to be in  culture that we recognise as being ‘our own’ in terms of empathy, care and attitude, or are we happy to be taken care of by the medical system of whatever country we’ve ended up in?

The only time I don’t enjoy the benefit of speaking a different language is when I’m sick. Trying to hit the right note with a foreign doctor – explaining that I am not a malingerer but that I’ve left it too late and really can’t breathe – feels like an unwelcome additional effort when I am already feeling vulnerable and out of sorts., and also, in what language we want to communicate. Research shows that when it comes to old age, speaking our second or third language could actually be a skill that we find we no longer have.

One of the things that surprised me in New Zealand was the fact that there were special retirement homes for Dutch elders. As the first generation of 1970’s immigrants grew old the demand increased for so called ‘first language’ retirement homes. These have now sprung up all over the globe, and not just for Dutch elders.  The process of forgetting second and third languages is called language attrition or reversion. Some researchers feel that, in addition to some form of dementia, this phenomenon is driven by the couples only speaking the ‘old’ language once the children have left home. Others say it is driven by a nostalgia and longing for all things familiar from the past. But there is a growing body of neurological evidence that shows that as we grow older we begin to find it more difficult to separate out the different language systems in our brains. And so our ‘oldest’ language is the one that dominates the rest.

Whatever the case may be, if we are contemplating growing old away from home, then maybe finding a familiarity in this ‘home’ away from home is not a bad idea. The Dutch nursing homes in Australia don’t just provide language to match, but also set out to create a social environment that feels like ‘home’. The complexes are built like small Dutch villages, or ‘dorpjes’, with windmills and canals to create a social and environmentally safe space. I can relate to that. I may not yet be old, but having returned part time to the fields and rivers where I grew up gives me an almost physical sensation of well being.

Your ‘home’ or mine

But that immediately raises another concern, especially for intercultural couples. Whose home is ‘home’. I may end up longing for windmills and gurgling ggggggggg…, while my wonderful other half will be longing for the hills of Värmland, and babbling away in Swedish. And what about our bones… should they rest in ‘foreign’ soil? I don’t think it is really important to solve this possible dilemma before we’re old and grey, but at the same time, it’s worth the odd conversation or two. Repatriation is not always the ‘homecoming’ that we expect it to be either, and so doing your homework is never a bad thing.

For all we know, as an intercultural couple we may end up happiest in an international ‘commune’ with likeminded foreign souls, and respective ‘dutch’ and ‘swedish’ rooms to retreat to when nostalgia hits. I sincerely hope one of our fellow expat travellers will have a light bulb moment reading this article and decide to invest their time and energy in setting up exactly such an innovative and internationally tinted elders commune. After all, ‘professional expats’ are used to looking at things from a different angle than their mono-cultural families and friends, and growing old and dying abroad is just one more consequence of leaving our cultural homelands.

Amsterdam May 2014 – © Lysanne Sizoo


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