LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Expats / May 9, 2010
At the weekend I chanced upon Tom, an elderly expat I haven’t set eyes on for many months. He was an avant-garde artist who came to the island in the early 1960s believing that he could live frugally but happily on modest savings, and on the sales of his canvasses.
Fifty years on, Tom’s savings have dried up, he’s been thrown out of his tiny flat because he can’t pay the rent and has been given temporary safe harbour at the home of an elderly friend. Tom receives a meagre state pension and until last year, when arthritis set in, he was able to get by on money raised from his watercolours. Not anymore. Now he’s too disabled and too impoverished to continue his art. He has no living relatives and few friends still alive in the UK or abroad.
End of a dream? Some expat pensioners cannot afford the airfare home
It’s easy to condemn the Toms of this world. We can throw scorn on them in their dotage, tick them off and tell them patronisingly that they should have thought ahead; should have planned for a rainy day but what would it solve? Tom is an extreme case of a British expat in dire need of help but many elderly Britons residing overseas more savvy and more prepared than he have also become croppers, often through no fault of their own.
The fall of the pound against the euro, the recession, a tightening on borrowing and a sudden increase in the cost of fuel and food bills, have hit many British expats badly. There are also a growing number of recently widowed pensioners whose husbands have died leaving them with greatly reduced pensions.
Age Concern are fighting to cope with the sheer volume of hardship cases being brought to them every day and simply do not have the finance-or magic wands- to deal with them. The luckier pensioners are returned to the UK where relatives or the state are forced to provide for them but others cannot even afford the airfare back.
There are even stories of elderly people being flown to British airports by expat friends and dumped in wheelchairs in the arrivals hall to be picked up later by airport authorities and handed over to social services. This is often seen as the only solution for those who simply have no one and nowhere left to go.
Back to Tom. The spruce, cheerful and polite man whom I didn’t know well but would happily pass the time of day with in the street, had changed beyond recognition. He was frighteningly thin, unshaven, vague and diminished. He walked with a faltering step and his hands visibly shook. I tried to speak to him but he barely recognised me, muttering that he was doing fine. Just fine.
Even in the grip of despair this pensioner still had his pride. [rc]
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