Monday 13 October 2014

Not all smiles for some retirees in Chiang Mai

Foreigners who do not plan ahead could end up abandoned and alone, infirm and destitute
By Nirmal Ghosh Indochina Bureau Chief In Chiang Mai, The Sunday Times, 12 Oct 2014

It is 2pm in Chiang Mai as Mrs Nancy Lindley wheels frail 74-year-old former stockbroker David Descault to the bank to close his accounts.

The American has lived 10 years in Chiang Mai. Thin as a rake and wheelchair-bound after a hip fracture around 19 months ago, he is due to travel home to Los Angeles, his passage funded by a loan under a United States Consulate programme.

As he collects his meagre few hundred baht, he banters with Mrs Lindley, saying with a short acerbic laugh: "I may get depressed, I may have some regrets, but I haven't lost my sense of humour."

He is an alcoholic who has no children. He was living alone in Chiang Mai and broke his hip but was "in denial and just lay in bed drinking until the neighbours became concerned and called us", said Mrs Lindley. Now, out of money and with no family left, he is going directly to a nursing home in the US. His US Government pension cheque will be redirected to the home.

With several thousand foreign retirees in Chiang Mai, Mr Descault's is not an unusual story, especially for British and American pensioners.

Mrs Lindley coordinates Lannacare Net, a voluntary network which helps retirees live "safe and healthy lives" and, especially, helps those in trouble. And there can be a lot of elderly foreigners in distress in Chiang Mai, long a retirement place for Thais especially from busy Bangkok, and lately a growing retirement destination for foreigners.

But it is also a place where those foreigners who do not plan ahead can disastrously run out of options and end up abandoned and alone, infirm and destitute, or any combination of the above, in a foreign country.

"There's never any one situation," Mrs Lindley told The Sunday Times. "The American and British cases tend to be very complex where you have issues of alcohol, orthopaedic fractures and, often, failed relationships with Thai people, financial problems, visa issues, and underlying diseases."

Lately, there is a new worry: Senior retirees in Chiang Mai unsure of their visa status under the new, tight military regime. Some have stayed beyond their visa limit and, under the tighter regulations, may not be allowed into the country again. Several are leaving now and may never return.

Those on retirement visas are safe. Thailand grants retirement visas if you are over 50 and can show that you have 800,000 baht (S$31,320) in the bank. And while the government welcomes long-staying foreigners, the retirement visa comes with one iron rule - you cannot work.

There is no shortage of people extolling Chiang Mai as a retirement haven. Live And Invest Overseas, a US-based magazine specialising in evaluating overseas destinations, this year rated Chiang Mai among its top 10 retirement cities.

With a population of around 1.5 million, Chiang Mai is about one-fifth the size of Bangkok. It has a distinct character - ancient brick fortress walls, old wooden houses, many temples, changes of season and a cold but not freezing winter, seven international schools and a vibrant cosmopolitan community.

On the downside, it is getting crowded and risks choking on its own success; traffic jams are now common and, in the winter, pollution combines with smoke from open burning across northern Thailand and Myanmar to cast a pall over the city.

But the cost of living is still about half that of Bangkok's, a third of Singapore's and a fifth of western Europe's. Good quality, 24/7 home health care costs roughly 40,000 baht a month - a fraction of what it is in the US or Europe.

In an experiment, Australian-born author and blogger Godfree Roberts, a Chiang Mai fan, spent two months in the city with his wife, mimicking retired life. They found that they lived comfortably on US$1,370 (S$1,744) per month, or US$685 per person. In 2012, he wrote that US$1,200 in Chiang Mai will give you a US$3,000 lifestyle.

Singaporean Jacob Loh, 64, who retired after 25 years in the advertising industry, compared the cost of living in Chiang Mai, Penang in Malaysia and other places in the region before choosing the northern Thai city.

Over coffee at a steak and ribs restaurant in the city's newest, most glitzy mall, the Promenada, he said: "Food here is about 50 per cent to 60 per cent cheaper than in Singapore."

Once married and now single with no children, he moved to Chiang Mai in 2009. "My main reason for moving to Chiang Mai is cost. And I need a roof over my head.

"In Singapore, I have one asset - the HDB flat. My CPF gives me just $400 a month. I can't survive in Singapore," he said.

In Chiang Mai, he rents a one-bedroom terrace house in a small leafy walled enclave for 8,500 baht a month. If he wanted to, he could get a two-room condo in a building with full amenities for 4 million baht, he said - half the price of a similar place in downtown Bangkok. Foreigners can buy condos, but cannot own land except through a Thai partner or company.

To support himself, Mr Loh rents out his three-room HDB flat back home for $1,600 a month.

That is what most foreigners do, said Mrs June Unland, 46, a Singaporean who lives in Chiang Mai with her husband and is active in the expat community. "You rent out your HDB flat and if you live modestly, you can live in Chiang Mai on $1,000 to $1,500 a month."

But retirees need to plan ahead, she cautioned. The message was echoed by many expatriates, young and old, and of different nationalities, who spoke to The Sunday Times.

Mrs Lindley, 64, herself a retiree, has been in Chiang Mai with her husband for six years and is also the president of the Chiang Mai Expats Club.

She has seen the enthusiastic newcomers, those who thrive and also those who crash their lives here.

She has also seen foreigners never opening a local bank account and drawing cash from their overseas account through the ATM. She has seen some forget their PIN numbers and lose their cards to the machine. She has seen people incapacitated by an accident or a stroke and forgetting passwords and PINs. Worse, she has seen people trust others with their financial details and passwords.

Financial planning and a reliable social network are critical, she stresses. "You need a trusted friend who is not just a barstool buddy," she warns.

Lannacare Net also recommends a detailed advance directive, specifying what is to be done in case of an accident or health crisis.

The demographics of the foreign retirees are slowly changing, from single men to couples. The presence of retirees has also spawned support industries, from residential developments to upscale hospitals with multi-lingual staff, said Mr Visut Buachum, Tourism Authority of Thailand regional director.

Assisted living is a new and booming industry, he noted, with at least two or three facilities coming up. Health-care professionals caution, though, that standards at these facilities may be an issue in future.

Currently, Lannacare Net's website lists just two assisted living facilities. The first to offer such services, and using an Australian model for assisted living, is Dok Kaew Gardens, which opened in 2009.

Some 10km south of Chiang Mai, in the vast compound of the 106-year-old McKean Hospital under towering rain trees, Dok Kaew offers assisted living at 32,000 to 45,000 baht a month, according to the level of care needed.

It has 20 residents, one of whom is Mr Burnett Roberts, 80, a former geologist from the US who planned ahead and does not intend to leave Thailand. He retired in Thailand 15 years ago and lived in Pattaya. Facing failing health, he moved to Dok Kaew just over a year ago.

He rolls around the grounds, covering around 5km every day on his electric wheelchair, and is actively engaged with the world through the Internet in his room. "I have a choice, but I would not go back to the States," he said. "I tell everyone the only way I'm leaving is through the chimney at the crematorium."

Not all retirement stories end in misery, Mrs Lindley says.

"I have seen some excellent role models here of people in their 80s who are doing very well, but they have really gone out of their way to establish relationships and keep active," she says. "Every day, there is something on the calendar, where they will be missed if they don't show up.

"You have to keep those contacts going. Some people will swear by Thai families to take care of them, and if it is the right person, it can be good, but I think you do need to keep contacts with your own nationality."

Singaporean Jacob Loh has no illusions. He has friends. He is active, playing badminton and going to the gym.

Like other Singaporeans settled here, he has one advantage over the European, American, Japanese and Australian retirees - Singapore is just three hours away on a plane.

"If you are a sociable person, you will find a lot of opportunities for social interaction here," he says. "But as a foreigner living anywhere, you have to make sure you can take care of yourself financially. You do have to fend for yourself."

 A look at Malaysia's retirement saving crisis

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