(From "Horizons" no. 112 March 2017)
I arrived in Xàbia in August 2016. It's a small coastal resort town in Alicante, and home to myriad retirees from northern and central Europe, especially the United Kingdom. In one neighbourhood in particular the residents speak only English and the shops all have English names. It is, in effect, a form of colony.
There's even a commonly heard joke in Xàbia: during negotiations over Gibraltar, the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is said to have remarked: 'I'll give you Gibraltar back, but leave us Xàbia!'
In Europe, the dominant model of society dictates that solidarity among individuals is more the preserve of the family than of the state. There are expectations of retirees, such as providing support to the family, typically by looking after grandchildren. As they reach a grander age, they can then count on their children to care for them. This model is based on the members of the family all living in relatively close proximity, which led me to wonder what effect distance has on family solidarity.
I'm following a post-doctoral programme at the University of Manchester (UK) and Virginia Tech (USA). Coincidence conspired in leading me to Xàbia. For many years, I've been studying the issues stemming from ageing, and I knew, thanks to the literature, that there were many retirees in Alicante. As I knew no one at all who'd gone there to set up for the long haul, I contacted a number of organisations and centres for retirees, including a regional association of Swiss retirees. Xàbia just happened to be the home of the first people I came into contact with. They put me in touch with other retirees, who had me added to some Facebook groups. This allowed me to extend my network to the neighbouring town of Dénia.
I first travelled there for a month-and-a-half stay, before returning once more in January 2017. On this second trip, my husband and two children came with me. During my stay, I spoke to many retirees either living in Xàbia or spending part of the year there. I met with them both in public and in their homes. Through in-depth interviews, I was able to analyse the nature of the family bonds they maintained with those living far away.
Don't sever ties
According to the people I interviewed, finances were a significant factor in the decision to leave home. They considered that they could improve their living conditions during their retirement by migrating abroad. In fact, some were in a financial situation that left them very little choice.
Given the differences in purchasing power, some retirees were able to buy large houses, sometimes even with a pool. They can go out and eat in restaurants, which would not necessarily have been the case in the countries they had left behind. They were also aware that their presence was a helping hand to the regional economy, reinforcing their idea that they were legitimately at home there. They were open to talk about their situations and were proud of what they had achieved. They no longer felt like they were 'mouths to be fed'.
The literature on the topic generally considers retirees as individuals who leave to enjoy their freedom, particularly with regard to family duties. I found the opposite. First, they had chosen Spain over Thailand and North Africa, so as not to be too far from their families. They agreed on the need to be available in case of emergency. They also see it as important to be able to receive family members as guests and had the impression that they could offer their children and grandchildren an enjoyable setting for their holidays, bringing them further value. In some cases, the departure had caused tension with the children, who had expected them to share in the daily chores. In other cases, they received the support of their families.
Interview by Benjamin Keller.