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Moving to a foreign country in one’s retirement years is counterintuitive. Retirement is a time to seek the security of immediate health care and the proximity of family. While my cousins were buying houses near their grandchildren in communities designed for health emergencies, I was foregoing Medicare Plan B and entering into Costa Rica’s CAJA maze, acting as if I would live forever.
Although it does not possess a fountain of youth, Costa Rica promotes living well and long. The country has one of Earth’s five Blue Zones, the Nicoya Peninsula, where centenarians outlive the rest of the planet. Remaining active, they succumb to old age rather than to obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes, subsisting largely on rice and beans, corn tortillas, cheese, eggs, and lots of fruit. Most of their diet comes from plants and from carbohydrates derived from whole grains, beans, and tubers like yucca.
My goal in retiring in Costa Rica was not to outlive Betty White or to idle away my days in Nicoya while munching on mangoes. I wanted to tap into some of the Tico characteristics that appear to increase longevity, mainly happiness and serenity. It became important as I entered into the twilight years to seek what makes human life meaningful, exploring answers through the eyes of a different culture and people.
Doña Romelia, a centenarian living in my town of Atenas, turned 103 on February 14, 2017. Although she is not from the Blue Zone, like many Costa Ricans, she has lived a long and healthy life. Doña Romelia attributes her longevity to healthy living, a deep and abiding faith, and a good heart.
Many immigrants like me can attest to the Tico good heart that goes beyond having a healthy ticker. Here, a corazon bueno is nurtured by growing up in close proximity of extended family. A genuine concern for one another radiates out beyond one’s family to consider the needs of others. As a result, the most vulnerable, the very young and the old are revered in Costa Rica.
The preference given to the elderly, pregnant or disabled in bank lines; the greeting by each person you pass on a walk in Atenas – all speak to the good heart of Costa Ricans. I have never had to stand on a bus, no matter how crowded; and I have been welcomed as a full family member inside two Tico families.
Lately, I find myself inundated with requests from friends, and their friends, in the U.S. about moving to Costa Rica. They seek to escape the chaos in the United States that seems to be spreading like a cancer. I try to temper information proffered with warnings:
• Don’t believe everything you read in the glossy magazines containing surveys that declare Costa Rica as the best retirement destination and the happiest place on Earth.
• Your life will change drastically, requiring that you adapt to Costa Rica. Do not expect the country to adapt to you.
• Survival is easier if you alter your diet, sleeping and rising, pace, and expectations.
• A sense of humor, an adventurous spirit, good manners, curiosity, and above all, attempting to speak Spanish is requisite.
Here’s the reality of moving to a foreign country for seniors: unless you isolate yourself, you will find camaraderie and friends to assist in times of emergencies as you, in turn, will help them. If you can learn from your host country how to release fears about the future and live in the moment, you will experience tranquilidad (tranquility) … at first in moments, then for hours and ultimately for days.
Perhaps that is the gist of living well and long in Costa Rica, apparently a dying art in some other countries. Here, as the proverb goes: Hay que escuchar a la cabeza, pero dejar hablar al corazón. In other words, in order to live well, no matter where you live, you have to listen to the head, but let the heart speak.
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