By Kenneth D. MacHarg
Much attention has been given in recent years to the idea of living abroad in retirement. Americans by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have chosen such countries as Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and the Dominican Republic as their new residence.
According to numerous newspaper and on-line reports, expat seniors find those locales to offer good health care, low costs of living, warm weather year-round and a strong social community for friendship and support.
(While figures vary from one report to another, Mexico is reported to house at least one million Americans with second homes or retirement property while Costa Rica hosts upwards of 70,000, Ecuador around 10,000, Panama 25,000 and the Dominican Republic 200,000).
While that prospect is inviting it isn’t for everyone. Issues ranging from health concerns (including insurance) to family ties and property in the home country discourage many from selling all and making a permanent move.
My wife and I considered retiring abroad after having lived in three Latin American countries during our work career. However with two grown children and three grandchildren in the United States we decided that settling in our home country was preferable.
But, still, we craved the expat life and the benefits of living in another culture, being immersed in an expat community and the desire to keep working on at least a part-time basis.
Enter the exciting and fulfilling world of temporary, international, volunteer work. It turns out that there is a wealth of international service opportunities in various countries that offer the lure of meaningful work combined with getting to know more about the culture, politics and daily life of another land.
Living abroad for a portion of the first decade of retirement allowed us to experience shopping in local grocery stores and open street markets or ferias. It led us to concerts of all sorts in Central Asia, Latin America and some of the grand concert halls of Europe. It provided summer-long berries in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, tasty Pupusas in Honduras and Gallo Pinto in Costa Rica.
We were also able to learn culture (and a little language) as we volunteered to teach English, worked in a woman’s craft center and visited inmates at local prisons.
And, we learned about day-to-day shopping, entertainment and living in a variety of cultures.
Finding such opportunities isn’t as hard as one might think. First, consider your own career, training and experience. I’m a retired pastor/missionary and there are over 2,000 international, English-language protestant churches serving expatriates and third-culture people worldwide with at least one in almost every country. At any given moment several dozen are without a pastor and need someone to come for a limited, interim term, either full or part-time.
Thus, in the first nine years after our official retirement my wife and I served for a portion of almost every year in such churches. The average length of service was from four to six months, though one was for a year and another invited us for portions of three years adding up to 14 months total in that country.
While many Christian missionary organizations recruit retired people for limited terms from six months to two years, one need not be an ordained pastor or commissioned missionary to serve outside of their home country.
Volunteer positions exist in a host of other fields as well including teaching in expat, English-language schools or universities, working on environmental projects or archeological digs, serving with relief and development agencies (including the Peace Corps), assisting in orphanages, teaching English—the list is endless.
Some such positions are fulltime; others offer flex-time opportunities according to the desire or capability of the volunteer.
Hundreds of English-language schools dot the landscape in international capital cities. While some are privately hire only full-time teachers, others are not-for-profit institutions that are more than happy to receive volunteer teachers for a semester or the entire school year.
Speaking of languages, there must be hundreds if not thousands of opportunities for teaching English as a second language around the world. Ranging from mom and pop storefront institutions, to accredited schools and universities, one can find a myriad of opportunities on line or, conversely, walk into any one of these schools in major cities and start teaching the next morning. The pay isn’t always the best (and the quality of teaching is often hit and miss), but these are opportunities for service abroad and the meeting of local people. A web search for “teach English abroad” will point to numerous opportunities.
Environmental and archeological organizations seem to relish the help of volunteers in their various projects around the world. Whether testing water and air purity or cataloging bones and other artifacts, these types of positions can take a retired volunteer or employee to places where the lifestyle is different, the food exotic and the expat colleagues are fascinating.
Then there is the Peace Corps which now offers volunteers more of a say as to where they will live and what they will do. Check out their page for those over 50 and their list of available opportunities.
A word of caution: While many places offer a lower cost of living compared to a home country, there are costs which must be considered. Some organizations may pay your out-of-pocket expenses, but most will not. So you need to factor in airfare, housing, expat medical insurance and other expenses during your time abroad.
In addition, some voluntary organizations may actually charge you to work for them. While that may sound odd, one must remember that they have expenses including administration, housing, transportation, insurance and other fees.
Be aware also of visa requirements. While most countries offer an initial visa for thirty to ninety days, getting one to stay longer can be a bit more complicated and costly. Also, getting one for volunteer work will most likely be easier than requesting a visa for a paying job.
So, if your heart flutters at the idea of living overseas during retirement but circumstances are working against it, consider the short-term work or volunteer openings that are available. There is a world of opportunities available for the asking.
Some additional resources for working or volunteering abroad in retirement
Mission Next (formerly Finishers) is a source for those seeking a second career in Christian service or retirement volunteer opportunities.
Projects Abroad provides links and guidelines to voluntary assignments around the world.
Go Overseas provides guidance and links to senior volunteer opportunities.
Action Without Borders, offers an interactive site where people and organizations can locate opportunities and supporters.
Samaritan’s Purse, related to the Billy Graham organization, offers numerous volunteer and paid positions around the world, especially for medical personnel.
Religious Opportunities Your religious tradition may offer paid or volunteer opportunities for seniors beyond the traditional ten day mission trip. One of the largest programs is offered by the Southern Baptist denomination. . Opportunities with Roman Catholic organizations can be accessed here:
Relief and Development opportunities Check out this website for information and guidance in helping out with disaster and development issues. . A listing of volunteer and paid opportunities through Reliefweb is here:
www.volunteerforever.com offers links to a wide variety of opportunities.
(A version of this article with the links in the text may be acquired by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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