Can you be too old, too sick or too disabled to be an expat? When is it time to go home?
By Richard Ingle
Two weeks ago, a talk radio show host read a Cuenca Citizen Guard report about an incident involving a foreign resident in Parque Calderon. The guard noticed an elderly man who had been holding on to the wrought iron fence surrounding the Abdon Calderon statue for an unusually long period of time. When she asked, in English, if he was okay, the man told her he was too weak to walk to the street for a taxi.
The guard, who believed the man had suffered a stroke, called for assistance and the man was helped to the curb where he was placed in a taxi. She called ahead to the man’s condominium on Av. Ordóñez Lasso to arrange assistance when he arrived.
Also recently, an acquaintance who manages rentals for foreign residents told me about a tenant, an 80-year-old woman from New York, who complained that she was being spied on and that the room above her apartment was filled with electronic surveillance equipment. When he explained that there was only a small, empty crawl space above her, she accused him and the other residents in the building of being part of the plot.
In another case, an elderly couple who live on a combined monthly pension of less than $700 told their next door neighbor that they are no longer able leave their El Centro apartment. The man, in his mid-80s, is recovering from a heart attack while his wife, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, uses a walker. The neighbor agreed to buy their groceries and other supplies, which includes seven bottles of vodka a week.
When the neighbor sat down with the couple to suggest they consider moving in with their daughter in the U.S. — she had offered the option on several occasions — they told him they have no plans to leave and believe their daughter is after their money.
When I hear of situations like these, or simply observe the difficulty some of my aging expat friends have getting around, I’m prompted to ask: is there a time when you should stop being an expat? Is there a time to go home?
As a psychologist by training, my first impulse is always to be supportive and offer encouragement to those grappling with issues of aging and the disabilities that come with it. “Good for you”, I want to tell them. My hat is off to anyone who fights through disadvantages to follow a dream of living in a new country and of seeking new adventures. After all, I’m an old guy myself, recently turning 70, who is beginning to notice the aches and pains of old age but who dearly loves Cuenca and the expat life in general.
I’m of the firm belief that the expat experience enlivens the lives of older people who decide to make the leap. I have friends in their 70s and even early 80s who take part in activities they would probably avoid back home. Some are part of hiking and biking clubs, participate in theater productions, book clubs, writing groups, knitting circles and charity projects.
And, when I consider the question of giving up expat life, I am not talking about those with strong support networks, no matter their disability. If someone has an able-bodied and able-minded spouse or close friends to help out, more power to them.
My question regards those without a support network, who live alone or with a partner who is also in declining health. Unfortunately, I see many such cases in Cuenca.
Ecuador — or any other country in Latin America, for that matter — is not a good place for the physically and mentally disabled. There are simply too many obstacles, too many rough sidewalks, too many careless drivers, and these are only the mobility issues; there are the equally daunting obstacles of language and culture and navigating bureaucracies that often make no sense even to Ecuadorians.
Too often, sadly, I find that many unhealthy expats are not here for the adventure but for the lower cost of living and, sometimes, to escape their families back home. One man who I recently helped down the stairs at the El Vergel shopping center told me, quite frankly, that he came to Cuenca to die and didn’t want to be a burden to his children. When I asked if the children were aware of the plan, he said no.
As long as the Ecuadorian government does not require physical or psychological testing for residency — and some countries are beginning to add such requirements for new foreign residents — all comers are legally welcome here. Ultimately, the question of the appropriateness of the move out of one’s home country, or of remaining in a country one relocated to at an earlier age, is up to the individual. Sadly, I am afraid that the issue is often not given the consideration it deserves.
Rick Ingle is a retired research psychologist and psychiatric counselor who has been a full- and part-time resident of Cuenca since 2006.