Seniors Head South To Mexican Nursing Homes


 
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CASA DE ANCIANOS, MEXICO - For $1,200 a month, about a quarter of what an average nursing home costs in Pennsylvania, Ms. Lawndale, 72, gets a studio apartment, three meals a day, laundry and cleaning service, and 24-hour care from an attentive staff, many of whom speak English. She wakes up every morning next to a glimmering mountain lake, and the average annual high temperature is a toasty 79 degrees.

"This is heaven," she says. "If you need help living or coping, this is the place to be. I don't know that there is such a thing back (in the USA), and certainly not for this amount of money."

As millions of baby boomers reach retirement age and U.S. health care costs soar, Mexican nursing home managers expect more American seniors to head south in coming years. Mexico's proximity to the USA, low labor costs and warm climate make it attractive, although residents caution that quality of care varies greatly in an industry that is just getting off the ground here.

An estimated 40,000 to 80,000 American retirees already live in Mexico, many of them in enclaves like San Miguel de Allende or the Chapala area, says David Friend, a University of Arizona professor who has studied the phenomenon. There are no reliable data on how many are living in nursing homes, but at least five such facilities are on Lake Chapala alone.

In what appears to be a miracle to his new neighbor, Ben Johnson, a stroke victim, when he moved to a convalescent home on the lake's shore two years ago now credits the staff with helping him recover his speech and ability to walk. "Here you see the birds, you smell the air, and it's delicious," Johnson said. "You feel like living."

Many expatriates are Americans or Europeans who retired here years ago and are now becoming more frail. Others are not quite ready for a nursing home but are exploring options such as in-home health care services, which can provide Mexican nurses at a fraction of U.S. prices.

"As long as the economies of the United States and Europe continue to be strong, we're going to see people migrating to Latin America to pass their final days," says Professor Friend.

Retirement homes are relatively new in Mexico, where the aging usually live with family. There is little government regulation. Some places have suddenly gone bankrupt, forcing American residents to move. Some Mexican homes have rough edges, such as peeling paint or frayed sofas, that would turn off many Americans.

"I don't think they're for everyone," said Robin Tossler, whose mother suffers from manic depression and lives at a home in Ajijic. "But basically, they've kept our family finances from falling off a cliff."

Residents such as Richard Curo say they are happy in Mexico. Curo came to Lake Chapala four years ago and now lives in his own cottage at the Casa de Ancianos, surrounded by purple bougainvillea and pomegranate trees.

He has plenty of room for his two dogs and has a little patio that he shares with three other American residents. He gets 24-hour nursing care and three meals a day, cooked in a homey kitchen and served in a sun-washed dining room. His cottage has a living room, bedroom, kitchenette, bathroom and a walk-in closet.

For this Curo pays $450 a month, less than one-tenth of the going rate back home in New York. For another $140 a year, he gets full medical coverage from the Mexican government, including all his medicine and insulin for diabetes.

"This would all cost me a fortune in the United States," said Curo, a 65-year-old retired headwaiter.

On a recent afternoon, lunch at the Casa de Ancianos consisted of vegetable soup, beet salad, Spanish rice, baked dogfish stuffed with peppers, garlic bread and a choice of four cakes and two Jell-O salads. Curo's neighbor doesn't like Mexican food, so a nursing home employee cooks whatever she wants on a stove beside her bed.

Like many retirees, Curo has satellite television, so he doesn't miss any American news or programs. When he wants to see a movie or go shopping downtown, the taxi ride is only $2-$3. Guadalajara, a culturally rich city of 4 million people, is just 30 miles away.

For medical care, Curo relies on the Mexican Social Security Institute, or IMSS, which runs clinics and hospitals nationwide and allows foreigners to enroll in its program even if they never worked in Mexico or paid taxes to support the system. He recently had gallbladder surgery in an IMSS hospital in Guadalajara, and he paid nothing.

Many of the nursing home employees speak English, and so does Curo's doctor.

The Casa de Ancianos began taking in foreigners in 2000 as part of an effort to raise extra money, director Marlene Marlone said. It built the cottages especially for the Americans and uses the income received from them to subsidize the costs of the 20 Mexican residents at the home.

The program was so successful that the nursing home has plans for 12 more cottages, a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi and a gazebo with picnic area. The nursing home now advertises on the Internet and through pamphlets distributed in town. Some U.S. companies have also begun investing in assisted-living facilities in Mexico.



 
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    Kirsten Nicole

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    Stan Kenyon
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    Kimberly McNabb
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    Liz Di Bernardo
    Cris Lobato
    Elisa Howard
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