The Future of Aging: Travel, Treatment, Retirement

These days, everything seems to be outsourced abroad. Jobs. Customer service. Even executive assistants.

And today, so is aging – which is fast becoming very big business.

With stressed savings accounts, Americans who are both healthy or needing assistance are looking to stretch their retirement dollars as far as possible.

So how about “The New Sun Belt” – which includes Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador – where you can live marvelously on less than $2,000 a month?

Or how about the Philippines, where a long-term care facility is one-third the cost of a comparative American site?

“There are lots of (Filipino) nursing homes and board and care facilities catering to the international community,” says Janice Blanchard, who heads the Denver-based consulting company Aging Better Together.

Best of all, experts say that foreign retirement is within reach of those with even modest means.

“It’s not just the province of the rich and powerful,” says Bill Benson, a board member for the San Francisco-based American Society on Aging.

Indeed, from 2005 to 2012 the number of Americans living in South America who received social security checks rose nearly 50%.

There are several books that chronicle this blossoming trend, including “Gringos in Paradise,” “The Grown-Up’s Guide to Running Away From Home,” “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance,” “How to Retire Overseas” and “Take the Retirement Road Less Traveled.”

Experts cite several factors contributing to the growth in overseas retirement: improved foreign healthcare, world-class technologies, online travel bookings, and the rise in “wellness tourism” that includes spas and retreats.

And Baby Boomers are driving this trend.

“Boomers were born to travel,” says Blanchard.

The launching pad for this trend is “medical tourism” – vacationing abroad and getting medical treatment at the same time – spurred by the rising cost of North American healthcare and, in some cases, long waiting lists for procedures.

Historically, such tourism focused on uninsured services like cosmetic surgery and dental work. Today, pricey health insurance means that complete surgeries overseas are often cheaper than American deductibles – sometimes even co-pays.

So foreign countries – many with American-trained doctors and dentists – are countering these high costs, and profiting.

“It’s huge income for those who are able to capture the market,” says Blanchard.

In fact, at an annual meeting of the Medical Tourism Association, Blanchard was shocked at the new players vying for American cash/

“I did not expect Rwanda, Nicaragua and Colombia to be represented,” she says.

Similasrly, countries like Singapore are rapidly improving their medical facilities to world-class standards. And after the genocide in Rwanda, new president Paul Kagame is creating a high-tech medical infrastructure with the help of American consultants like David Lindeman of the Oakland-based Center for Technology and Aging.

There are other factors contributing to the trend.

The film “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” sparked further interest in both medical tourism and overseas retirement.

And in a country filled with increasingly contentious politics and social ills – including financial insecurity – many Americans are getting fed up with their homeland.

“Other countries offer a quality of life that’s principled and anchored more in the rhythm of daily living, and human connections, and to the planet,” says Blanchard, who is also author of the book “Aging in Community.”

Expatriate communities are quietly showing up in countries all over the globe.

Besides Panama and Ecuador, Forbes magazine listed Malaysia as one of the top three global retirement destinations, where retirees can live a “first world existence for $1,700 a month.”

“We’re beginning to see a lot of people move to that part of the world,” says Blanchard, citing Southeast Asia’s inexpensive food and transportation.

Yet what about Americans who have no savings whatsoever? In some countries, it’s possible to retire abroad solely on income from Social Security income – which today averages $1,255 per month for retirees.

Still, it’s not all rosy for these world travelers. There are still many concerns – and limitations – to this trend.

Benson cites a group of American expatriates in Guadalajara, Mexico, who were angry that they couldn’t get their health costs covered by Medicare – which typically covers Americans 65 and over. Medicare does not pay for overseas health expenses.

Long-term care insurance policies are equally suspicious of foreign travelers. They may pay for a long-term care facility overseas for a year, says Benson, but after that they want the insured party to return home to the United States.

By far the biggest fear for overseas retirees is the quality of medical treatment. While there are many first-class facilities worldwide, busy travelers or those in remote areas may not have access to adequate care.

Medical treatment in China and India “substantially increases rates of mortality,” says Benson, who also heads Health Benefits ABCs in Silver Spring, Maryland.

In fact, he adds, American physicians typically won’t touch patients first treated overseas.

“Most surgeons will not take care of patients from another country.”

Lawrence Weiss, founder of the Center for Healthy Aging, also cites ethical concerns. Are local citizens neglected to care for rich foreigners? And do physicians schooled in the United States contribute to a country’s “brain drain”?

Despite these fears, savvy world travelers will continue to seek out the ideal retirement destination – at the beach, river, or foot of a mountain.

“You can have a really good quality of life for $1,500 – $2,000 a month, which you can’t touch in the United States,” says Blanchard. “Boomers have always been adventurers. They’ve got the health and they’ve got the money. And there’s this sense of adventure that’s leading them abroad.”

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