Mexico´s growing assisted-living market targets U.S. retirees

03:08 PM CST on Sunday, November 16, 2008
By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News

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SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico – Laredo native Alice Edwards and her helicopter pilot husband have an active lifestyle in this picturesque town popular among retired Texans.

But the 60-somethings are also the new owners of a townhouse in Mexico´s first assisted-living development aimed at the U.S. market, Cielito Lindo.

With 75 million baby boomers heading toward retirement and the cost of private nursing care in the U.S. outstripping hammered retirement funds, Mexican developers say they have an irresistible product in the works: active senior and assisted-living facilities in a warm climate full of friendly people for as little as $1,100 a month.

"For us, it´s purely an investment," said Ms. Edwards. The couple will probably rent it out. But Floyd Edwards quickly added: "At this point, you never can tell. It´s something we will all need eventually."

Some developers are shifting their traditional condo and townhouse developments in midstream to include assisted-living wings focused, in part, on Americans who want modern facilities with quality services rather than the informal operations or go-it-alone approaches that now exist.

There are already an estimated 1.2 million retired Americans and Canadians in Mexico who – like their millions of compatriots back home – will need a greater level of care at an affordable price.

"This is not going to be a niche market; this is going to be an entire industry," said Eduardo Alvarado, chief executive officer of La Moreleja, a residential development in San Luis Potosí, a colonial city in northern Mexico that also sports Wal-Mart, Home Depot and many other businesses familiar to Americans.

"We already have the pioneers here, but what we are seeing is that many people will come perhaps not because they want to but out of necessity," he said. Many will find Mexico far more modern and far safer than they had imagined, he added.

For example, Mr. Alvarado said, the drug cartel violence that gets so much U.S. media coverage rarely touches civilians.

Mexico "is as safe or safer than the U.S.," he said.

The U.S. Embassy warns Americans to be extra careful along the U.S.-Mexico border but otherwise considers attacks against the millions of U.S. citizens who visit and live here to be isolated and rare.

Mr. Alvarado said that once his property is finished sometime next year, with 180 spots for assisted living and 250 for independent, "Dallas will be one of the markets we go after immediately," he said, because of the proximity and direct flights.

Next will be the Northeast, he said, mostly because of the harsh climate.

La Moreleja will charge a one-time inscription of $9,000 and a monthly rent of about $1,100 that includes a full range of services, including meals.

One problem, developers said, is a lack of regulations.

The private assisted-living and nursing industry is so new in Mexico -- there are about a half-dozen facilities under construction -- that laws need to be written to cover its activities.

The Mexican Association of Retirement Communities is lobbying for legislation similar to U.S. regulations.

Marisol Ancona Velten, director of planning for Le Grand Senior Living, an assisted-living development in Mexico City, warned against informal, ''clandestine'' senior housing that caters to Americans and offers substandard care in converted private homes.

She also said many Mexican resort cities, like San Miguel and Puerto Vallarta, do not have the world-class hospitals found in the Mexican capital.

Mexico has a national health care system (which Americans can buy into for $350 a year) along with many private hospitals and clinics with U.S.-trained doctors. Average life expectancy for Mexicans is 75 years, just three less than in the U.S., according to the retirement organization AARP.

Since most Mexicans take care of their parents often until death, there is not much of a nursing home industry at all, except for those run by charities or the government.

Many Americans who retire in Mexico have often been adventurous types willing to learn the language and traverse the obstacle course of setting up a home, securing quality medical care and adapting to cultural differences.

Jonathan Taylor, 78, came to San Miguel de Allende from Dalhart, Texas, almost six years ago.

''I reached an age when I didn´t want to work anymore, and I couldn´t afford to quit in the U.S.,'' he said.

Taylor now spends his time running, playing tennis and socializing but can imagine the day when he might need to move into a place like Cielito Lindo, which he visited when it was inaugurated in September.

''I hope I don´t have to consider it for a while, but if you get into your 80s and need assisted living, what could be better than this?'' said Taylor, who can get on a bus in San Miguel that takes him to Dallas to visit his brother. ''The people are so friendly and the scenery is so beautiful.''


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