On a balmy Sunday, Nicole Jean Kennedy waits to be served lunch at the resort where she is staying. She looks out on lush tropical gardens dotted with tree-shaded villas, and the mist-fringed mountains beyond.
“It’s hard to beat,” she said.
The 85-year-old looks as relaxed as any vacationer, but she is not on vacation. She is a permanent resident of a facility for the aged, called Care Resort, in northern Thailand. The retired academic moved here from the United States three years ago.
“It is amazing, really amazing,” she said. “They do everything. You have your laundry done, your room is done; if you have any physical problem you have a nurse. And you have the food, that’s good too. … We have the most wonderful weather here. We are lucky.”
Care Resort is one of the first of several similar establishments that have sprung up in Thailand recently, offering both high-quality and affordable care to elderly foreigners. They are one response to what is increasingly being described by experts as a global aged care crisis.
From 2015 to 2030, the number of people on the planet aged 60 years and over is predicted to jump from 900 million to 1.4 billion, according to the U.N. By 2050, the number of those 80 years and over is expected to triple. We are living longer, but that means more people with disabilities and chronic conditions who are less able to live independently. How they will be cared for, and at what cost, is a growing concern in many countries.
In Australia, for example, recent revelations of systemic problems have sparked a major commission of inquiry into the aged care industry.
The award-winning Care Resort was established five years ago by Peter Brown after he became frustrated and disillusioned with the care available for his elderly mother in the United Kingdom.
“I’m a restless mind and I decided there was a better way to do this.” “I believed Thai people, with natural respect for the elderly, would make good carers; that’s been proved tenfold.”
Brown had two key principles in mind: “One, there will always be enough care. The second philosophy was it couldn’t look smell or be like a nursing home,” he said.
The self-described “luxury adult-care retirement facility” nestles in a picturesque valley, a half-hour drive from the vibrant city of Chiang Mai. Residents and visitors are accommodated in comfortable villas. There’s a pool, spa, fitness center, and library. A range of activities and excursions are offered.
According to financial services company Genworth, assisted living care in the United States now costs an average of $4,000 a month, and double that for a private room in a nursing home. Care Resort charges 47,000 Thai baht (about $1,400) a month, although additional fees apply for more intensive care, such as assistance with bathing and changing dressings. Currently, two fully qualified nurses and about 40 trained carers are employed to look after 37 residents.
“About half of my guests here have some form of dementia,” Brown said. Worldwide, an estimated 46.8 million people had dementia in 2015, and by 2050 it’s expected to be 131.5 million. At Care Resort, those with level 6 or 7 Alzheimer’s live in what’s called a memory care unit. They have their own bedroom, bathroom, and communal living area, as well as 24-hour supervision. Brown advocates linking people with dementia to normal life as much as possible.
“It is one of the few memory care units for that level in the world with unlocked doors,” he said. “If someone wants to go for a walk they can, but they need a carer within 10 meters of them. Even my level 5 guests go on the weekly shopping excursion if they want. But it’s one carer, one person. They can sit in a bar and drink a beer, they can go to Starbucks and drink a coffee, they can buy their own toothpaste, own shampoo.”
Still, the question remains why anyone would consider packing their elderly and ailing relative off to a foreign country, thousands of miles from family and friends.
“It’s a big decision to come here from the U.S., or Australia, or the UK,” Brown readily concedes, adding it’s important to weigh the pros and cons.
“The biggest selling point for me is you’re giving [your loved one] the best life they can have in the time they have. It’s about the care, someone who’s giving care from the heart, not a minimum wage employee. … Here you’ve got people who respect the elderly. Northern Thailand is a family-orientated culture.”
But even Thailand is not immune from issues associated with an aging population. By 2021, 20 percent of its population will be elderly. The traditional system of caring for people at home is still strong, but it’s beginning to face challenges due to smaller family sizes, and younger family members moving away for work.
A project known as Jin Wellbeing County has recently identified a market in providing luxury residential and health care for aging, affluent Thais.
Brown says the single biggest challenge for foreigners moving to Thailand for aged care is medical.
“Your mother comes here at 88, she isn’t going to get any reasonable insurance,” he said. “Most people here are self-funding. You probably won’t get as good medical care as you’d get in the U.S. But medical care here is very good, better than in the UK. Doctors are well trained, hospitals are well managed, and there’s a lot of choice. We’ve got six international hospitals here, and that’s in Chiang Mai alone.”
Brown believes the best solution would be for facilities with both the standard of care and affordability of Care Resort to exist in countries such as the United States. “But don’t hold your breath,” he said.
Meanwhile, the elegant and sharp-minded Nicole Jean Kennedy eyes the bowl of tasty looking fish and vegetables she has just been served. She says she had no doubts about relocating to Thailand, and Care Resort, in her eighties.
“I had nobody left except a son who lives in Japan with his family and he was very worried about me because I lived in Las Vegas,” she said. “He saw this place and mentioned it to me and I figured it would be a good way to be out of his problem, because I could be here, being taken care of, and he wouldn’t have to worry any more. He doesn’t have to make huge trips to see me. We text each other and call. That’s why I decided to try it. And I really like it.”