US seniors go south - way south

The cost of living in the US has retirees heading to former cold war hot spots.

For many Americans, Nicaragua is still best known for left-wing guerrillas and right-wing strongmen. Its tumultuous past was immortalized by P.J. O'Rourke, along with places like Lebanon and communist Poland, in his 1988 book, "Holidays in Hell."

But 15 years later, this Central American nation is emerging as a US retirement heaven. Inexpensive colonial mansions line Granada's streets. Cheap land surrounds picturesque crater lakes and active volcanoes. And the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in the United States.

Going south - even south of the border - is nothing new for seniors. Americans have long been retiring to expatriate communities in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica. But as those destinations boom, Nicaragua - as well as Honduras and other nations once considered infernos of the cold war - is becoming a new frontier for today's retirees.

"A lot of my family and friends ... think I'm crazy," says Tony Nowicki, a retired pharmacist who sold his home in Houston and bought land on the outskirts of Granada last year. Here, newly built homes painted pastel orange and turquoise stand next to one-room wooden shacks topped with tin sheets.

Moving abroad is a lifestyle choice for most. As concerns over dwindling social security and soaring healthcare costs grow, many Americans are opting to spend old age in the developing world, to lead a life they otherwise could not afford. But they say there are trade-offs, such as cultural and language barriers, isolation, and living in a place where political stability is fragile.

"You know what stops me from going back?" Mr. Nowicki says. "I'd have to go back to work.... At 62, it's not something you can go back to easily."

Poor but safe

Nicaragua, where an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Americans live, is the second- poorest country in the hemisphere, after Haiti. Though many still associate it with its revolutionary past, according to the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism, it's the safest nation in Central America.

Here a three-course meal at a top restaurant costs as little as $40 for two. An ocean-front, five-bedroom home can sell for $180,000 - a price that has doubled or tripled in the past five years. A full-time maid costs around $100 a month. It's even possible to buy an island in the waters of Lake Nicaragua, famed for its freshwater sharks.

Like many of his peers, Howard Cox moved to Nicaragua last year, fleeing the "cost and crime" of Costa Rica, where he had lived for more than 15 years. The number of Americans there has swelled to more than 20,000 in the past decade, which many retirees say has contributed to robbery and fraud.

There are things the father of two longs for in Nicaragua: his grown children, American food, the infrastructure. He tires of the potholes that riddle paths serving as major throughways in most of the country. "And everything is mañana," Mr. Cox sighs.

"I had a great life [in the US]. My kids are there. I wasn't planning on spending my life in this part of the world," says Cox, who moved abroad after a divorce. "But I'm never going back. This is the way a 65-year-old should be living."

Most Americans seniors have no plans or desire to move, says Andrew Kochera, a senior policy adviser at AARP, a nonprofit group representing people over 50.

Still, there are a significant number of retirees abroad. According to figures from the Social Security Administration, there were more than 400,000 beneficiaries abroad in 2001, the latest figures available. Don Bradley, a sociologist at East Carolina University, says the numbers are probably much higher, since the US does not track the overall number of citizens who leave the country.

For those working with retirees, the fact that seniors are opting to live abroad indicates just how hard it can be for some seniors to make ends meet in the US.

"A lot of consumer groups, as well as industry and government groups, have been aware of and are struggling with the issue of how to provide affordable housing," Mr. Kochera says. It's particularly hard on elderly renters. "The affordability crisis is very acute."

Far from family members

Social considerations also play a large role for retirees. Many seniors in Granada spend long hours at Zoom's Bar, an open-air cafe on one of the city's main streets. There they talk about US sports championships, social-security payments, and new neighbors moving in and out of the area.

Nowicki, whose wife died more than six years ago, married a young bride from Nicaragua whom he met on a trip to Costa Rica. He says their age difference is more accepted in Central America.

"I wouldn't be dating in the US," he says.

But simply living abroad presents many challenges for seniors.

"Medical is a huge concern, it's the first thing you look at," says Barbara Perriello, the director of Agora Travel, based in Florida. She has been operating tours for retirees and investors throughout Latin America since 1995.

She says it's also a challenge for many to be so far away from family members - a feeling that, for Nowicki, also works in the reverse. His children were upset that he sold the family home, he says. "My daughter wanted to live with her dad," he says.

Both Nowicki and Cox gripe about the rules and regulations in the US. They say that while their American friends and family see Nicaragua as a dangerous place, they feel safer than they would in the US, especially in terms of violent crime. But that could all change.

In the 1980s, P.J. O'Rourke and other journalists recorded the battle over Nicaragua between the US-funded Contras and the left-wing Sandinistas. Today, some say a different kind of political instability threatens the country.

"I'm worried about demographics," says Raymond Lyons, a retired border-patrol agent for the US government, who moved to Nicaragua two years ago. Some 40 percent of the population is 14 or younger, and the unemployment rate is 11 percent. Thirty-six percent of the country is underemployed.

"There are so many young boys sitting around with nothing to do, nothing to lose," he says. "This place is ripe for another revolution."

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