The myth that older people suffer isolation, financial hardship and language difficulties overseas has been scotched by the findings of a British multi-disciplinary research team with expertise in geography, health services, social science, humanities and languages.
The three-year project, International Retirement Migration from the United Kingdom to southern Europe, required fieldwork in Malta, Tuscany, the Costa del Sol in southern Spain and the Algarve in southern Portugal. This may sound like a passport to a life interviewing on Mediterranean beaches, but one of the principal researchers, Tony Warnes, of the school of health related research, University of Sheffield, denied this.
"Just one research assistant administered detailed questionnaires to more than 1,000 people who had migrated to these areas, followed up by 180 in-depth interviews," he said. Professor Warnes has enjoyed a long-established collaboration with the other two main researchers, Russell King, from the school of European studies, University of Sussex, and Alan Williams, of the department of geography, University of Exeter.
Developments within the European Union have made it easier to move and buy property abroad. The study found that older British people who have gone to live in southern Europe are generally happy and determined to stay.Some treated southern Europe as their second home while keeping a residence in Britain.
Professor Warnes said that the image of the over-60's selling up and making a clean break overseas holds true in only a minority of cases. Three other distinct patterns have been identified. First, people are increasingly working in continental Europe and moving there later. Second, expatriates from, for example, Hong Kong, often decide to retire to southern Europe. And third, the reasons why people retire to Malta, which is not a member of the European Union, are different from the other three study locations. Malta was found to have more elderly migrants who were manual workers, partly because of the Royal Navy's past involvement in the dockyards and partly because of a strong representation of Anglo-Maltese families from Britain.
The Britons said that it was the climate and a relaxed lifestyle that drew them overseas. The low cost of living, which Professor Warnes said not only included everyday costs such as heating but also the initial outlay of a property, was cheaper. But he added that in the 1990s the differential between relative property prices had closed since the 1960s.
But who are the elderly most likely to leave Britain? The researchers found that most were well off and highly educated, having been managers, professionals, civil servants and educators.
The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also found that the majority of pensioners were positive about local health services. But it warned that health and other service providers should consider the migrants, as they get older and more frail, in their planning as they predict a "steady growth" of migrants from other Northern European countries as well as Britain to the Mediterranean.
Professor Warnes said that statistics on migrants between EU states are not good, but that moves are under way to improve data throughout Europe with greater attention paid to breaking down official statistics by age.