More than a million Britons live on their pension abroad. But when their health fails they often find there are scant services, leaving them with little choice but to return to the UK. Sally Gillen reports
Since the 1960s, increasing numbers of British people have chosen to spend their retirement abroad in sunnier climes.
But people who have retired to places such as Spain are now finding it difficult to access adequate health and social care, particularly those who do not register with the local authorities (Care for returning expatriates could be major drain on council finances, 16 March).
Accurate figures on the numbers of UK pensioners living abroad are hard to come by, given that there is no legal duty on people moving abroad to inform British authorities. But Department for Work and Pensions figures show that in 2004, 8 per cent of UK pensioners – 988,700 people – received their pensions abroad. Of those, 22 per cent had them paid into a Spanish bank account. But overall numbers could be greater, as there are people living in France and Spain, for example, who receive their pensions via a British bank account.
To be covered for healthcare in other countries within the European Economic Area – which comprises the European Union plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – people moving abroad must have an E121 form and submit it to the local authorities.
Judy Arnold-Boakes, a patron of Age Concern Espa–a, says that while some authorities “turn a blind eye” to the fact British people requiring help have not registered as residents, unregistered people are “pushing their luck” and may miss out on care.
Another difficulty is that there is no consistency of provision in Spain. In Majorca, where Arnold-Boakes is based, there are 52 councils, all of which have different policies.
“In Spain you may have councils side by side who offer totally different services. One may provide social services comparable with what you have in the UK, another’s provision will extend to a bus pass,” she says.
Registering in another country will mean you are offered the same welfare as the native population, but even then different national traditions could mean that older couples encounter problems.
In some areas, personal care and feeding in hospitals are the responsibility of an individual’s family. But while this may be manageable for an extended family, it is difficult for a spouse in failing health themselves.
The emphasis on family support means that publicly funded care homes are not as prevalent in countries such as Spain, where older family members are often cared for by their children.
In such circumstances it is often the charitable sector that takes on the care and support of older people. Age Concern Espa–a, one of the more established organisations, works closely with local authorities, but though it tries to plug the gaps in services, it is sometimes thwarted by local law and politics.
For instance, a scheme to drive older people to and from hospital appointments in one part of Majorca was scuppered by the local mayor, who vetoed the plans, saying they would upset taxi drivers.
Irene Hardill, a professor of economic geography at Nottingham Trent University, who has researched the lives of British people living in Spain, says: “When people move to Spain in their fifties, life is very different from what it becomes when they there are in their seventies.”
Governments across Europe will need to join forces to look at the issues that will arise from the numbers of British people moving around countries within the European Union, she says.
“We now have Brits who aren’t just moving to Spain but to Bulgaria and pretty much any country you care to name. The figures are alarming when you look at the numbers of Brits abroad.”
But the problems do not only relate to the level of care people receive abroad. The UK government will also have to consider the impact on an already stretched health and social care system of thousands of pensioners returning home, because of inadequate care abroad.