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The Washington Post
By Sindya N. Bhanoo
May 26, 2020
Retiring to a sunny foreign vacation spot was the American dream. Now the coronavirus is forcing some expats to come back.
Lured by warm weather and the prospect that their Social Security benefits would go further, a growing number of Americans had been looking to retire abroad.
When the borders between the United States and Mexico closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hernán Drobny and Ann Barden, a retired couple from Michigan, swung into action.
Drobny, a former physician, called trusted, local doctors in their retirement enclave of San Miguel and asked if they would provide care, should the couple come down with covid-19. He looked into home delivery of oxygen tanks, purchased hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, unproven medications that have been used against the novel coronavirus, and made inquiries about in-home nursing.
More than two months later, Drobny is convinced it was the right call. “We have some sadness in feeling constrained, not seeing family and friends, and feel a bit stranded,” he said. But had they returned to their second home in Michigan the situation would have been the same, just colder, he said. “If we were not interested in intensive care, which would clearly be better in the U.S., we felt we could stay here,” Drobny said.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many American expat retirees to reevaluate their decision to live abroad, weighing their financial situations, access to health care and the prospect that cross-border movement could be limited to essential travel — cutting them off from loved ones. It is forcing some to put expat life on hold, or return years earlier than they had initially planned.
About 1.4 million American retirees receive Social Security payments abroad, though that figure may not include those who split their time between another country and the United States.
Until the pandemic brought vacation life to a grinding halt, the number of Americans choosing to retire to other countries had been climbing over the last few years, said David Kuenzi, a partner at Thun Financial Advisors in Madison, Wis., which has more than 500 Americans abroad as clients.
Kuenzi now expects a slowdown, and possibly a reversal in the movement of retirees outside the United States.
“If you’re elderly and high risk and think ‘If I get this I might need ventilation,’ then maybe the United States is the better place to be,” Kuenzi said. “As of right now, a lot of people who were planning a retirement abroad are putting those plans on hold.”
Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania who studies pension, Social Security and retirement security, said that retirees tend to stay abroad until their health begins to deteriorate. Then, the United States becomes attractive again, because of the availability of health care and the proximity to family.
“There is a reverse flow to be closer to kids,” Mitchell said. “This epidemic may hasten that return flow for people on the edge of that, who are starting to struggle with taking care of themselves.”
For retirees already abroad, many of whom are considered high risk for severe illness with covid-19, the decision to stay or go home is personal, based on health, savings and the potential for social and economic upheaval in their adopted countries.
Retirees whose wealth and income is largely derived from U.S. investments need to factor in a potential drop in income from their investments or retirement plans and make sure they have a financial buffer.
“Cash is king, so ideally you’ve got a lot of savings,” said William Jordan, the incoming president of the Association of American Residents Overseas and a retired American diplomat living in Paris. “Having that cushion is key for any retiree, but especially for retirees abroad in times like this.”
It also makes sense to review health care in their retirement destination, Jordan said. “The coronavirus is acting as a test of health systems all around the world, and how they cope could affect whether people choose to retire overseas,” he said.
And then there are security considerations. “Billions of people are out of work in many countries,” Mitchell said. “Food security is declining and corruption, bankruptcy and thievery are clearly going to become more of a concern.”
Drobny and Barden are already beginning to factor those concerns into their plans. The couple expects to remain financially secure even as U.S. and global markets experience a significant downturn.
But Drobny does worry that economic instability might trigger social unrest in Mexico, where many locals who are dependent on the informal economy, working as housekeepers, gardeners and in other service industry jobs, are now out of work.
“People, when they’re desperate, do desperate things,” he said. If safety becomes a concern, he said he and his wife will return to the United States.
Deborah Bickel, an American who runs Be Well San Miguel, a health-care consulting service in San Miguel de Allende that helps expatriates navigate the Mexican health-care system, has advised dozens of retirees on whether to stay or return to the United States.
She advised some, including David and Barbara Ziff, who have lived in San Miguel for 10 years, to return to the United States because of preexisting medical conditions.
David Ziff, 75, had an aortic valve replacement 2½ years ago and has a pacemaker. Although the Ziffs were not worried about contracting the coronavirus in Mexico, they were worried about travel becoming difficult and dangerous. They wanted to be able to visit David’s cardiologist at Duke University, if the need arose. They drove from Mexico to North Carolina last month.
“When we crossed the border into Texas, I felt an enormous feeling of relief that we were back somewhere where we could get good medical care, converse with doctors in English and use Medicare,” Barbara Ziff, 73, said.
Their drive back was tense, as they armed themselves with cleaning products to wipe down hotel rooms. They will not return to Mexico until they feel safe traveling by air again.
“We’re thinking we’re here anywhere for six months to a couple years,” Barbara Ziff said. “It’s not so much financial for us, everything is health-based.”
They are still paying $1,250 a month in rent for their three-bedroom home in San Miguel, which they can manage through savings — David is a retired clinical psychologist and Barbara is a retired teacher — and because they have cash from the sale in February of their Chapel Hill house.
“We got all that cash, and the market is way down,” David Ziff said. "So we feel very lucky.”
For others, money is more of a concern. Ava Wilson, 72, and her husband moved from the Denver area to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2008, after losing most of their savings in the stock-market crash. They sold their home in a short sale and bought a modest home in Lake Chapala that they have fixed up over the years.
The year they moved to Mexico, Wilson fell off a ladder. The couple did not have health insurance, and the accident cost them $30,000. They still have money in the stock market, but Wilson says they cover most of their living expenses through Social Security.
While they love Lake Chapala for its climate and easy living, they have talked about leaving Mexico. Wilson misses her grandchildren, the Internet is often spotty and simple tasks, like paying a phone bill, can be frustrating.
“For a short time we talked about having an escape plan,” she said. “We don’t know where to go where you can afford this lifestyle with fresh, clean air. Where do you go where you can live on your Social Security?”
For Janice Wenning, who has a home in Berkeley, Calif., getting home has been the challenge. Wenning, 63, and her husband have traveled between the island of Ambergris Caye in Belize and their home in Berkeley for the last 15 years. This year, they planned to be in Ambergris Caye for two months but extended their stay after the owner offered them the place at a discounted monthly rate.
“To have left in March would have thrown us into the fire,” she said. “Everything we were seeing going on in the States looked so bad.”
But then their flight in April was canceled, and Wenning and her husband began to worry, even as they continued swimming in the Caribbean and getting massages by the beach. They were finally able to get seats on a U.S. Embassy-arranged repatriation flight on May 6.
As they settle back into life in Berkeley, they are reconciling with the fact that they may not travel internationally for a long time, and that their vacations may be limited to places within driving distance.
“We’re in our 60s, even though we’re both very healthy we can’t just be ‘let’s go here’ like we did when we were in our 20s,” she said. “We are more conscious about the health aspects, the exposure aspects, and where health care might be limited, particularly for visitors or travelers.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect age for David Ziff. This has now been updated.