Last days – An expat’s reflections on ageing and dying in Andalucía

A couple of weeks back, a foreign resident in Ronda was found dead in his flat. Rather like a TV thriller plot, his body had been lying undiscovered for over two weeks in the Andalucian pre-summer heat before the police finally was alerted, probably by a neighbour who had noticed the smell.

Dying is a topic that few of us like to think about, even if we all have to face it sooner or later. Be it our own last days or those of somebody near and dear to us, getting old is never easy and rarely painless. We often hear that living in a sunnier climate, such as Spain, makes for a longer, healthier and happier life, but is this entirely true? In our ultimate hours it is likely not sun we will yearn for, but rather the presence of our loved ones.

How will our final chapters unfold for those of us who will spend our final years in Andalucía? Though I have not planned to end this human journey of mine just yet, the recent death in our barrio made me reflect on how it might be to age and pass on in our very neighbourhood and what thoughts I might share in this regard.

The recently diseased expat lived three blocks from our house, yet we did not know him. Actually, few did. He was friendly enough and greeted people when passing, but kept mostly to himself. He lived alone and had no near relations that any of our neighbours were aware of. Yoli, the greengrocer told me that he used to come to her store every other day to buy bread. Even if he went away for just a weekend, he would inform her in advance not to keep his bread in vain. Therefore, when he didn’t come by her store for more than a week, she knew that something was amiss and worried that he had fallen sick. Not wanting to pry and expecting that the man’s landlady might object if she would go knocking on his door, she stayed away. So, the unfortunate expat had a heart attack and died alone in his flat without anybody being aware of his trouble.

Sad as it is, a local nurse told me that this type of scenario is quite common among foreigners living in Spain, especially on the coast where the expats communities are more transient. Here in Ronda, the foreign residents are somewhat more entrenched in the local society. However, knowing the locals at the bar or in your panadería (bakery) does not mean that they will be watching over you when you are on your last leg.

Many Spanish will frown upon the way we North Americans and Northern Europeans institutionalize our old relatives. The rural Spanish are very family oriented. Every rondeño we know who has an ageing and ailing relative take active part in their care, spending entire weekends at the elder’s bedside, paying for a private caregiver during the week when they work or having their old aunt staying with them. A neighbour had her mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer, live with her husband and herself. For several years they had the immobile mother’s bed right in their living room until she passed away last winter, of course surrounded by family and loved ones.

It is not that caring for their elders comes easier to the Spanish. Caring for their old relatives is often a great sacrifice and a big strain on the entire family, though certainly here in our town it is considered the right and truly the only thing to do. We do have retirement homes, though these are usually considered as a last resort. The newest addition to ‘Senior Living’ options in our town looks more like a hotel, though in the end it is still an institution. A gentleman we know who recently moved in there, calls himself and his fellow residents for inmates. Lucky for him, he still has his grace and sense of humour intact.

Many expats living in Spain today arrived in droves in the 1970s and 80’s, when they were relatively young. Now, with the uncertain political future, rapidly changing climate, increasing heat, diminishing pensions, advancing age, unwanted health problems or untimely widowhood, many are copying the Brexit and trying to make their own late exit plan from Spain, hoping to end their days on their native soil. Yet for some, moving back ‘home’ is simply not financially possible. While other expats like my husband and I are in peace with the notion that this is where we will remain. We know that one day in the unforeseeable future we will turn into Andalucian dust.

For all the pros and cons of living here, how can we as expats plan for our latter days in southern Spain? In my view, the first thing to do about ageing in general is to accept oneself. We are all getting older, however much some of us strive to look like the world’s oldest teenager. If we are lucky to live into old age, we must acknowledge the special care and needs this golden époque will require.

Since part of our ageing might come as a bonus from our gene pool, one way of looking into our retired future is to observe our senior relatives. Both my parents started getting longer and longer arms, in other words becoming farsighted, in their late 40’s. Therefore I knew that I would have to get reading glasses at about the same age. Since they both got hearing aids before they turned 80 and my maternal grandfather was stone deaf in the end, I can pretty much guarantee that I will be (more…) hard of hearing still, particularly since these relatives didn’t abuse their tympanic membranes like I did during the disco era. Not all that happened to our parents need to happen to us, but knowing that both my parents had cancer, I can certainly do my darndest to turn the trend by avoiding carcinogens and generally keeping a positive attitude. Living amongst all those olive trees should help, as should the Andalucian climate.

Other than recognizing our possible generic predispositions, there are other things we can do to promote longevity, the well supported findings of eating healthy, getting enough sleep, fresh air, exercise, and not stuffing ourselves full of toxins. Eating all the great local produce that is available here in Spain might help our golden days, but not if we consider deep fried croquettes and unlimited wads of thirst-quenching beer to be the fundamentals of what they call the Mediterranean diet.

Given that however much we take care of our selves, we are all going towards our unknown expiration date, it might be an idea to insure ourselves. There are all kinds of life insurances in Andalucía, which in spite of its name will not insure our life at all, but rather those who we might leave behind. Further, there is something call death insurance (Seguro de Defuncion), which for a few euros a month will assure that the cost of our funeral, transport home and even a mass is covered. This way our living relatives won’t be slammed with a big bill as our final good bye, nor will we ruin our surviving spouse. Talking of said spouse, we might neither wish to be the one to go first, nor the one to be left behind, but life is such that usually one partner will die before the other. Like death, widowhood is something we avoid thinking about, yet one day the home you created with your spouse in Spain might seem awfully empty for just one. Therefore, if you have a chance to downsize while you both are still mobile and ‘with it’, it is advisable to do so.

As far as testaments, Spain is not like other places where we can leave all our assets to our favourite cat or charity of choice. The laws here will always give the living children of the diseased most of the assets. In fact, it is almost impossible to disinherit ones offspring in Spain, unless one can prove that they have threatened ones life. To assure that the surviving spouse can live in the couple’s home for the remainder of their days, it is therefore prudent to have a notary draw up a will for both partners. Apparently one can use the inheritance laws of ones country of origin as well, but since I am not a lawyer and cannot speak with any kind of legal authority, I will not get into that.

On more practical matters, remember that diminishing site? It is always easier to clean up ones mess now than later in life, when we are blinder, stiffer and less prone to crawling into dark closets. Having helped clear out my parents’ house after my dad’s passing, I promised myself to live more streamline and not to gather too much crap. This is easier said than done, but there is no reason not to be bit pre-emptive. Our end is usually closer than we expect it to be. Likewise, though we might not need stair railings and raised toilet seats at this very moment, it is good to have a plan as to how we can age proof our home for the future. Unfortunately for a designer like myself, the aesthetical aspect of age-proofing paraphernalia is not always to my liking, but when it comes to ageing, safety should always come first. And maybe by the time we need it, Philippe Starck will be one of us and will have come out with a cool line of magnifying glasses, cell phones for the nearly blind and jet age adult diapers. I will welcome it!

In all seriousness, what about the day we can no longer live alone? We are always keen to get our children on the waiting lists for the best day care facilities and schools, but we are generally not as eager to go out and scout for potential old age residences for ourselves. Truth be known, I have actually never met an older person who has gladly and willingly moved into this type of facility. Like it or not, it is always better to inform ourselves of what is out there, in case we should need it one day. Just like day cares and schools, there will be better and not so good old age residences and I rather know before I am forced to move one day. Talking of elder care, there are also usually costs involved. We tend to think that old people don’t spend money and when it comes to clothes and the latest technology, this is likely true. But even in a country with free or subsidized medical care, as we grow older we tend to require additional aid and care, some of which might be outside of the realm and budget of the healthcare system. So it is always good to put aside a few shillings for such possible future needs.

As far as living as an expat in a foreign land, the best way to assure that one will have a happier, safer and more social old age is to become part of ones community. Forget about your concern with perfect grammar, the main door- opener when living in a foreign country is to speak the language of the locals, however faulty and accented. In my experience, this is the only way to gradually become accepted into their community. If you want to be included, you must embrace your new hometown and your neighbourhood. The general rule that we follow is to take part. If there is a charity drive, buy a ticket or reserve a table. Join in that cancer walk. If a neighbour has passed on or a child on the street has a first communion, go to the mass or at least express your sympathies or congratulations. Whether there is a concert, a play, a community clean up or a neighbourhood meeting, even if you only understand a fraction of what is said, do attend. I assure you, it won’t go unnoticed. Speak to your neighbours, get to know them and always when possible offer to help them. It is harder to be accepted as a foreigner, so we might have to work twice as hard at it. It is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy, particularly for the times ahead when we might need a helping hand. Do not rush out of the local store unless you have to. Hang around for a while like the other locals to chat and hear the latest gossip. Help your old neighbour with her grocery bags if you have a spare hand. Ask their advice on how to grow flowers on your terrace or when to repaint your façade, even if you think you know the answer. You might learn something, and eventually you will earn their friendship. Participate, help, share, give, and always try to be open. If you care for your neighbours, you will eventually feel their concern for you in return.

We might happen to be alone when we draw our last breath, but by opening up to our Spanish neighbours and becoming part of the Andalucian society, there is more of a chance that somebody will knock on our door and inquire as to our well being should we fail to pick up our bread at the corner store.