Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and … the quality of lifeand the specter of death for expatriates in Cuenca
by Anne Carr and Monica Aguilar Sizer
Here we are in Cuenca — visas, residency, property, and all! Most of us researched Ecuador extensively before we came to visit, then arranged our return to stay long-term here. Almost everything is perfect about Cuenca: climate, cost of living, relative safety if we are thoughtful about our actions. But as new immigrants, we know there will be adjustments.
That includes, of course, the challenge of learning Spanish. We persist, knowing that it’s not only the task of all immigrants to learn the language of their new country, but it also makes life a heck of a lot easier and more fun. Knowing even a little Spanish helps us find what we want in stores, communicate with plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers, and waitresses, and, of course, in our working or volunteering.
As with any new immigrant group, at first we tend to hang out with and seek information and help from other expats who have been through the immigration delays, container-shipment challenges, lawyers, and patrimonial law issues, sharing with amazement the time-and-space differences we encounter.
Time. Well, that’s definitely to be experienced and welcomed – increasing our relaxation and smiles. And space. Well, that’s to be very carefully experienced as we try to cross busy uneven roads, teeth grinding or lip chewing as we hang on for dear life in buses and taxis!
Gradually, we begin to de-ghettoize and, while still valuing our English-speaking acquaintances and friends, we reach out into the community in various ways, for services like dentistry and medical checkups, and to compare drug availability and costs.
Expecting the unexpected is probably the one good usable phrase we’ve inherited from French philosophy! In our immigration plans, our energies were devoted to organizing our new lives – collecting all the necessary legal documents, furnishing our housing, investigating and experiencing the cost of living, bringing our stuff. But they likely weren’t focused on encountering possible extended illness, or approaching death, in Cuenca.
Generationally, historically, and culturally, we — the new immigrant jubilados (retirees) — may talk about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But we don’t discuss aging, sickness, or death. Maybe we, the Boomers who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, are the generation that’s never going to grow old! And so we build apartments or houses to live in, not to die in.
But if we respect ourselves enough, we must consider our frailty — even up to the moment of our demise. Until recently in Cuenca, a traditional and wealthy city, it was considered disloyal not to care for an aging and/or sick family member. Attitudes are changing and there’s increasing interest in different kinds of living for “third agers.” These attitudes reflect a respect for ourselves, as well as for those who love us. Who might take care of you if your partner dies, if you have no family here, and decide to remain in Ecuador and need support in daily living?
In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, as we age and have health problems, there are retirement complexes, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, and the like. But in Cuenca, where do we go?
We do have choices. We can hire a nurse to care for us in our existing accommodations. We can also consider one of the existing care homes generally run by nuns and, therefore, the Catholic Church. But what would happen to our social relationships with others? What we know about physical and psychosocial health is that peers, friends, and the community are a great stimulus for the maintenance of health. Living alone may not only be lonely, but increase the risk of diminishing well-being.
What if we could buy one of a collection of small self-contained apartments surrounding a hub of daily-living services and medical facilities, for example, physiotherapy, nutrition, maintenance of memory skills, and extended care? Our monthly costs, in addition to ownership, would depend on how much and what kind of care we needed. The complex would be “no or low risk” and non-denominational, with appropriate access and social relationships in mind.
This is by no means an advertisement for a particular building project. Rather, it’s an idea that might prompt us to consider our mortality and the quality of time remaining nearer the end of our lives. We’re privileged in being healthy and enjoying our high quality of life here in Cuenca. We’re also privileged in our thinking and planning skills. We planned to leave our country of origin, executed the transition, and have adapted to living in a completely different culture. But the more options we can imagine, the higher our quality of life as we age will be.