Over A Million Gringos Can’t Be Wrong!
By Greg Custer
If you’re in your 60’s it’s likely you are pondering a ‘What next?’ dilemma, appraising lifestyle choice in the glaring light of America’s medical care and social security train wreck. Adding to the complexity is a likelihood your parent’s future is part of this life 2.0 decision. Like never before in our history, our parents are living longer, staying active, and facing (with their grown-up children) an uncertain future. The question for many: can we afford quality senior care, while not draining a lifetime of assets and savings?
For my family, this quandary is more than philosophical. My wife Jane and I were quite content living in rural Oregon’s high desert. We lived in one of the country’s most desirable recreation and retirement cities (Bend). We had solid and satisfying late career jobs, work-from-home flexibility and healthy, fit lifestyles.
Then things changed, as we were joined by a new roommate: my 83-year old Mom. We’ve embraced this change with open arms, yet came over time to accept how tenuous our situation had become.
Today millions of Americans are at least considering overseas options, a whim scarcely considered a generation ago. And for many, the reality of taking along aged parents is now squarely part of our ‘what next’ lifestyle decision.
You say, “Hmm, are we ready to look elsewhere, even moving abroad?” Many of us boomers have cozied up to the idea of living overseas. It may have started as a trivial, somewhat voyeuristic form of acceptance: peeking from our US living rooms at media outlets House Hunters International and International Living. A “Wouldn’t it be fun?” form of escapism has seeped into our retirement consciousness.
For us, the first decision to resolve: was migrating with Mom the right thing to do? An unsuccessful and expensive go at assisted living in Oregon (more and more like all-inclusive resorts for active boomers and/or their parents), got us seriously talking about options. There had to be a better way. The jaw dropping cost and insular, institutional memory care experience convinced us to do some exploring, and to our first of many ‘ah ha!’ moments.
It went down like this: one of Jane’s childhood friends from Palo Alto CA had adopted Mexico some 35 years ago, married a Mexican, and raised three multi-cultured children. In 2012, her ailing mother, Alice, became perhaps the first patient in history to be airlifted FROM a hospital in Wisconsin TO Mexico, where she comfortably bedded down for her remaining years in a Lake Chapala care facility.
We visited Alice at adult-living facility in the community of Riberas del Pilar, Chapala. Subsequent investigation found Chapala home to a half dozen care facilities. While varying in quality, facilities and price -- as do rest homes just about anywhere, we became more confident there were viable options for quality, safe, affordable, 24-7 care.
It was never really a question of what country would top our list. As educators Jane and I spent the better part of three decades illuminating Mexico to travel agents around the world (www.magicofmexico.com). There’d be no international house hunting in Nicaragua or Thailand for us; we fell hard for Mexico. Frequent travel throughout Latin America only made us more convinced we’d find that perfect spot: ‘foreign yet familiar’ and right next door.
It’s not unlike the path many of you have come upon over the last 30 or so years. Go on vacation, find a place that clicks, make the timeshare down payment, and start to wonder why your special place can’t become your year ‘round home. For some places, like Mexico, the boom began long before the 2007 housing crash, and is now at breathtaking pace. No one really knows the real number, but a commonly-sited figure is over one million Americans are now residing full-time under the Mexican sun.
Your first inclination might be to jot down a short list of ‘why we CAN’T do this now.’ Be careful. You may find writing down the obvious obstacles becomes a roadmap rather than an off ramp to a new generational partnership, in a foreign land.
Our second ‘ah ha!’ moment came months after Mom moved in with us in Oregon. Following a visit with a friend in Guadalajara, Jane brought me two 1940’s books about Mexico lakeside living by writer Dane Chandos, actually a nom di plum for British writer Peter Lilly who adopted Lake Chapala as his home and lived lakeside for over 30 years. In an era before gated expat communities, the books recount the challenges and everyday curiosities that endear so many norteamericanos with Mexico.
The books awakened memories of summer 1993. Our family of five spent nearly a month in a rented hillside house just outside of the town of Chapala. Reading these 1940’s chronicles of daily village life awoke in us a yearning for the essence of Mexico living: scenic, safe small-town simplicity married with big city conveniences and comforts a short drive away.
“Chapala, huh? Didn’t Americans and Canadians used to go there to retire?” In fact, yes; the villages lining the Lake’s northern shore have been attracting expats for decades. Chapala is both a town and a lake (Mexico’s largest). Tucked between shoreline and sierra is a sting of cobbled and colorful colonial era villages. At a quite hospitable 5,000 feet altitude, Chapala is a half hour from Guadalajara’s international airport and under an hour to the nearest Costco and the city’s world-class medical care. We’d be under three hours’ drive to the coast (Manzanillo), be able to get familiar brands at Ajijic’s scenic view Walmart, and had found an assortment of home rentals for under $800 a month!
But we weren’t really looking for a gringo bubble of country clubs and expat-led farmers markets. What cinched the deal was Chapala’s amalgamation of Mexican village simplicity, spectacular scenery, the world’s best climate, and a better place for Mom.
Yes, there are going to be decisions and tradeoffs – and some hard ones. You will approach your spouse and likely conclude: it’s just not practical, it’s not the right time, we won’t see our grandkids, we need to work a few more years before retiring, we don’t speak any foreign languages. Picking up and moving abroad is daunting to even the most seasoned global traveler. And it’s not everyone’s path to a successful, sustainable lifestyle migration.
Demographers tell us an astounding 10,000 Americans reach retirement age every single day, and few are financially equipped nor emotionally prepared to manage their own retirement – and even less so while caring for an aging parent.
For us, fulfilling a dream decades old became something much more than an escapist TV show. Ironically, it was Mom’s fading memory that helped us decide it was time to start making some of our own.
Ed. Note: Greg Custer is a tourism marketing veteran with over thirty years working, teaching and writing about Mexico. He resides with his wife Jane in Riberas del Pilar, Chapala, Jalisco.