Wed, Jun 27, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Norway exports its elderly and infirm to Mediterranean

THE GUARDIAN , MADRID

Norway is exporting its elderly and infirm to the Costa Blanca in the hope that the Mediterranean climate will help them live longer -- and that lower costs will save the state money.

In a new twist on care for the elderly, thousands of Norwegians are relaxing in the Spanish sun and taking health cures at a growing number of geriatric and rehabilitation centers run by Norwegian municipalities and staffed almost entirely by Norwegians in the Alicante region.

The trend goes beyond the waves of "health tourists," including many Britons, who fly to Malaga for a cheaper hip replacement or a shorter waiting time than back home.

All the Norwegians have to do is get the approval of their doctors, fill in a few forms and they are eligible for six weeks to a lifetime stay near Benidorm, at the expense of Norwegian tax payers.

"Instead of building a new treatment center in Oslo, local authorities can just build one in southern Spain," said Lotte Tollefsen, a spokeswoman at the Norwegian embassy in Madrid.

"It is easy to find qualified medical personnel and the climate is very beneficial to the patients. Compared to the Norwegian winters, it's a soothing balm," Tolefsen said.

Salaries, land prices and ordinary living expenses are also considerably lower in Alicante than in Norway, one of the most expensive countries in the world. Many doctors and nurses are even willing to accept lower pay in exchange for the chance to work for a year or two in sunny Spain.

The governments of chilly cities such as Oslo or Stavanger have already opened five residences, most of them near the town of L'Alfas del Pi, home to up to 10,000 Norwegians. The largest, Reumasol, operated by a state-subsidised rheumatism association, sees approximately 2,500 patients a year.

The complex includes 44 apartments, 32 hotel rooms, three pools and a miniature golf course. Those who come without a doctor's orders pay 600 euros (US$807) to 1,000 euros for two weeks.

A sixth residence is expected to open in Altea next year and other municipalities are scouting for building sites. The Norwegian government has even opened its own social security office in Alicante.

"I'm sure this is just the start," said Marit Moller Wolfe, director of Fundacion Betanien, a geriatric residence in Alfas del Pi operated by the city of Bergen. "Every month we receive visits from a different delegation of politicians from Norway who want to copy how we do it."

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