They meet at 11 a.m. every Monday. Without fail. Some weeks there are five or six people in attendance, other weeks there are upwards of twenty-five. This is a small group in comparison to another branch further up the coast, someone tells me. The Seniors Club seems to have a dual purpose.[1] It is officially registered as an organization that provides free care and assistance to older British people who live in Spain’s Costa del Sol. However, during the Monday coffee mornings with everyone sitting on a terrace in the sunshine, this role seems underplayed. If people require assistance with something they will quietly tell a volunteer and they will head into the café to discuss it. There is the sense that, during these coffee mornings, this is a group of friends meeting to share their news, and their lives. I was welcomed into this group with open arms when I arrived in June 2016. My purpose there, as both a doctoral researcher and a volunteer, was quickly forgotten. Instead, I became known as their collectively “adopted granddaughter.”

 

When I first arrived Tricia, the group coordinator, told me that all she wanted me to do as a volunteer was to talk to the group’s members. At 24 years old, my youth would bring a smile to their faces; my role would be to listen to their stories. My attendance was identified as unusual. Indeed, volunteers were mainly retired people themselves. I was, in some ways, visibly out of place. My presence was often commented on: “You’re a bit young to be part of this group!” At the same time, my regular attendance provided group members with an opportunity to talk to someone new, and to share their stories and thoughts. I once asked Tricia what she thought the average age of the group was: “oh 75—easily!,” she replied. The Seniors Club was, and remains, predominantly made up of women. The few men that do attend often do so with their wives. During my time there, only one single man, William, was in regular attendance. He used to come with his wife before her recent death. The majority of the female attendees were widows, reflecting a demographic phenomenon: women tend to live longer than men on average.

Morning coffee in Costa del Sol

Tricia is in charge. She runs the group—a fact that is acknowledged, accepted, and never (to my knowledge) challenged. Every Monday she arrives with notebook and cushions (for the café’s hard plastic seats) in hand. She is a whirlwind of energy, despite her own health problems. “I am getting too old for this,” she tells me. “But if I don’t help these old people, then who will? They get no help here.”

She must be in her seventies herself. In helping the members of the Seniors Club, Tricia performs myriad duties (see Haas, 2013). She shuttles people to and from the Monday coffee morning. She notes down who is in attendance and helps them order their coffees in Spanish (she is fluent while many of the group members only know a few words). She co-ordinates the other volunteers, including me, as we help people find seats or whatever else needs to be done. She phones people to check up on them if they haven’t attended in a few weeks.

Out with the Monday meet up, Tricia transports people to the hospital, using her fluent Spanish to act as a translator. She takes members to the shops, and even helps them with domestic tasks such as laundry or cleaning. As she is of the same age as many of the group members, Tricia is not averse to telling people off, in a matriarchal tone. When Betty missed a couple of weeks due to being hospitalized, for instance, Tricia was stern with her: “Why didn’t you tell me you were ill?! Don’t you dare do that again. You MUST tell us.”

 

The Seniors Club, under Tricia’s organization, acts as a support network. The members, and volunteers, look out for one another. The members are all aware that the next week they might require extra assistance in tasks that had been routine and easy the week before. With many of the group reliant on their membership in the Seniors Club, widowed, with no family around them, advancing in years and declining in health—why do they stay in Spain?

“The weather”

“The lifestyle”

“The cost of living”

These were some of the most common, concise, responses, and, for those whom I encountered, they were often self-explanatory. For some members, the Seniors Club provided company, perhaps the only company that they would have all week. However, this seemed to be the case for surprisingly few attendees. Many were members of several groups and had something to attend every day of the week. This was the case for 95-year-old Rose. She had lived in the Costa del Sol permanently since she was 85. Before that, she had traveled regularly between a house in the UK and her apartment in the Costa del Sol. When I asked Rose about the EU referendum she didn’t seem concerned at all. Instead, she told me that she was “going to live and die in the Costa del Sol and that is a fact!”

Not all of the members of the Seniors Club had such clear plans. In the days after the result of the EU referendum some of the group members were decidedly anxious about their life in Spain. Anna, who had lived as a retiree in the Costa del Sol for thirty-two years was one of them. On the first meeting after the result she came out to the terrace, her face troubled. She joined the group, sat down, and said: “What will happen to us?”

It was clearly a rhetorical question. She knew that the other members of the Seniors Club would have as many unanswered questions as she did. That day, three days after the referendum result was announced, there was a tense atmosphere in the group. Anna, and others, were unable to vote due to restrictions on time spent living outside the UK. They told me of their feelings of disenfranchisement, disappointment, and even anger. They were given no voice on an issue that had the potential to significantly alter their life in Spain. At the same time, Anna was sitting next to Cynthia who was loudly proclaiming her pleasure at the result to leave the European Union. “Britain is free again!” she exclaimed. “This will take us back to the good years.” Anna responded with a tone of disbelief and anger: “How can you say that?! The European Union helps you live here!” Since then, the Monday meetings have had an unspoken agreement that the EU referendum was a discussion point to be avoided.

Where is Home?

The concept of “home” has been understood as a multifaceted concept that not only pays attention to a particular dwelling, or place, but also to its emotional, and imaginative aspects (see Blunt and Dowling, 2006; Baxter and Brickell, 2014; Brickell, 2014). Home has been conceptualized as a physical site, related to family and love, tied to individual identity, related to material belongings, and a concept that can occur on different scales (from house, neighborhood, city, and country). It has also been theorized as a fluid concept that can be created, transformed, and/or abandoned (see also Blunt and Dowling, 2006; Brickell, 2014; Porteous and Smith, 2001). Home is, as Bhatti (2006: 321) argues, not a static or fixed concept but one that is “always becoming.” For retired British migrants who have chosen to live, and possibly die, in the Costa del Sol, their sense of home may be shifting as a direct consequence of “Brexit.” For Anna, and other members of the Seniors Club, if the UK’s departure from the EU demanded they return to the UK, they would have nowhere to go. For example, Charlotte has lived in the Costa del Sol for over 25 years. She has no family in the UK and considers her little apartment in Spain to be home. She told me that if she were to go back to the UK she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy or rent in her native London.

William, who is recently widowed, is always chatting, and dancing during the Monday meets. However, beneath his good humor and happy manner are concerns about whether he still belongs in Spain following the death of his wife. Every week he jokingly asks a different woman in the group (including me!) to come and look after him. He often asks for someone to do his ironing. I offer to come and help one day and he responds by saying that I don’t need to; the reality was that he misses his wife and that his life in the Costa del Sol is not the same without her. At 88 years old, and in remission from cancer for the third time, his family in the UK want him to return so that they can look after him. However, William often tells the group that he has no desire to leave. “I am British, but my home is here!” he says. “I don’t want to go back.” For him, his sense of home in the Costa del Sol is closely connected to his experiences with, and memories of, his wife: their buying and decorating of their villa, their trips around the coast, their membership in different clubs. William’s sentiments about the Costa del Sol as “home” are also accompanied by what Oliver and O’Reilly (2010) refer to as discourses about “bad Britain.” For him, this involves listing the things that are wrong with the UK, such as the recent rise in reported hate crime in England. In light of the referendum, William’s list has become more orientated towards the referendum result: “I actually feel a bit ashamed to be British. But I’m not Spanish. I’ll never be Spanish.”

The referendum result has raised questions about what it means to be British. This is a particularly poignant question for members of the Seniors Club who regularly discuss UK news, politics, popular culture, sport, and more. Their lives, and identities, as O’Reilly (2000: 17) suggests, are both “betwixt and between” the UK and Spain. Arguably, this has never been more true for this migrant population than now.

Money Matters

The referendum result has raised questions of home and, in some cases, identity. It has also begun to reshape the lives of the Seniors Club members, alongside other retired British people I have met. The financial implications of the referendum result on these people’s everyday lives is already visible. It has been acknowledged in literature on “lifestyle migrants,” a category used in relation to British retirement migrants, that many of those who migrate in search of a better life are relatively privileged (see Benson and O’Reilly, 2009; Oliver, 2008; Oliver and O’Reilly, 2010). My research within the Seniors Club does not dispute this: there are privileged attitudes attached to identifying as a “British expatriate,” as part of a colonial and imperial history (Kunz, 2016). However, my observations highlight the fact that financial privilege is not necessarily the norm. Instead, for some there is sole reliance on the UK state pension, with little additional savings. For others, their savings have been totally invested in property in Spain. People in more precarious financial situations are the most affected by fluctuating exchange rates.

Since the referendum result in June the exchange rate has dropped dramatically, leaving those reliant on their pensions from the UK (private or state) with an estimated 20% drop in their monthly income. For some this means adjusting their lifestyle, perhaps going out for dinner a little less. For others, it means shopping in a different, cheaper supermarket. For the most financially insecure, this drop leaves them barely able to make ends meet. Polly and Martha, new members of the Seniors Club, were bemoaning the exchange rate change one Monday. I asked how they were managing. “What we get is all we have,” Polly told me. “It’s not like we can go and work a few more hours. It’s a different amount every month. Some months are much harder than others.”

The recent, and in many cases unanticipated, drop in income as a result of the referendum has already had consequences for the daily lives of British people who have retired in the Costa del Sol. Of course, the exchange rate has dropped dramatically before, during the financial crisis in 2008, for example, when many British people left and returned to live in the UK (see Betty and Hall, 2015). The current exchange rate might again leave more retired British people with little choice but to return to the UK for state assistance. This situation would force them to unmake their home in Spain and start again in a UK that they no longer recognize after years spent living abroad (Baxter and Brickell, 2014). As Charlotte’s comment demonstrates, where would they go?

Carrying on Regardless?

It is clear that the consequences of the result of the UK’s referendum on its membership in the European Union are being felt on a daily basis. At the same time, however, comments about “just getting on with things” are common. Still, though there is a “carry on regardless” attitude on the surface, I’d suggest that there is are a series of concerns that exists and that might prove to be more pressing as the so-called “Brexit” is enacted. The referendum result has seen some of these privileged lifestyle migrants question their British identity and others question their concept of “home.” In thinking about their home, the retired British migrants I have spoken to are raising related concerns about identity, finances, health, and future plans. For some, these issues may have been discussed previously, but now they have become more pressing issues that have the potential to dramatically change their retirement plans, their home, and their lives in the Costa del Sol. This, it seems, provides an serious dilemma as there is every possibility that some of these people will have to return to the UK in the future. Their return may be encouraged by the UK’s exit from the EU, or it may be unrelated. However, if they have to go “home” to their country of origin, to a place that is no longer their “home” in an imagined sense—what will they do? Creating plans for multiple possible futures seems to provide a sense of control over their lives and their futures. For Rose, her plan to live and die in Spain was unchanged. For Anna, who felt a distinct lack of control, her lifestyle was being challenged by a vote that she, like many others, were unable to partake in. The questions then become: will, or can, these retired British migrants re-locate themselves and their concept of home?

Though the members of the Seniors Club may spend much of their lives in relative leisure, comfort, and in good weather, they live in more precarious circumstances than perhaps first imagined. Through their membership in the Seniors Club these retired British migrants are perhaps perpetuating stereotypes about British people living in a “little Britain” in Spain. However, the Seniors Club provides a valuable social and caring network that is highly valued by the members I encountered. With changing financial status, and concerns about their future in Spain, this group has arguably become more important to these people than ever.

 

Notes

[1] Pseudonyms have been used throughout to protect the anonymity of the group, and participants.

References

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Brickell K (2014) “Plates in a basket will rattle”: Marital dissolution and home “unmaking” in contemporary Cambodia. Geoforum 51: 262–272.

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Betty C and Hall K (2015) The Myth of No Return? Why Retired British Migrants in Spain Return to the UK. In: Torkington K, David I, & Sardinha J (eds) Practicing the Good Life: Lifestyle Migration in Practices. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp.123- 137.

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Rebekah Miller is a doctoral candidate reading geography at The University of Edinburgh. Her research is centred on understanding the experiences of retired British migrants living in the Costa del Sol region of Spain. She has a particular interest in the geographies of ageing, the concept of ‘home’, and how digital media is used by older people.