ELDERLY CARE Sail off into the golden years -- as a way of life
A study found that cruise ships can be affordable places to spend retirement.
MIAMI (AP) -- Gil and Teresa Betthauser spent more than a decade of their retirement touring the nation in a motor home, and now in their 70s, they can't imagine the idea of ending their travels to move into an assisted-living facility.
That's why they're intrigued by a recent study that proposes seniors who need only minimal care should take the money they would have spent on assisted living and book permanent passage on cruise ships.
"When people have an opportunity to go to the Bahamas, they'd have something to look forward to and they'd live longer," said the 76-year-old Teresa, who currently lives with her husband in a retirement community in Tucson, Ariz.
The two Northwestern University physicians who wrote the study, Drs. Lee A. Lindquist and Robert M. Golub, make the case that the costs for an entire year in an assisted-living center are comparable to those on a cruise ship. Doctors or nurses are always on call on larger ships. All meals are taken care of. Libraries, movie theaters and pools are available for entertainment.
And perhaps most importantly, the allure of being in the warm weather all year and visiting exotic places might persuade some resistant seniors to get the care they need.
"It comes to a point where they can't live at home alone," Dr. Lindquist said. "That's the hardest thing to do to send someone to an assisted-living facility. No one thinks they're old enough."
The authors acknowledge that crew members would have to receive additional training, such as in dispensing pills and helping the elderly get dressed.
And only seniors who weren't bedridden or seriously ill could live at sea.
"With assisted living, these are pretty much independent seniors. They'd need help with maybe one or two activities, meal preparation, shopping or taking medications," Dr. Lindquist said.
The study estimated the annual cost for a double cabin on a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. ship at about $33,000 per person.
A search on Yahoo's travel Web site had prices as low as $399 per person in a double cabin for a seven-night cruise in the Gulf of Mexico on a Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. ship. Port charges, taxes and government fees could bring that up to about $26,000 a year per person.
That's not a bad deal, the study contends, because the average annual cost at an assisted-living center is about $22,000 per person, according to federal and private data. In large cities such as Chicago, those costs can exceed $48,000 a year.
There would be extra costs, such as transport from the ship for emergency care and crew training. But Dr. Lindquist said she has gotten hundreds of e-mails since the study's November release from people interested in the idea, including the Betthausers.
Dr. Lindquist suggests there could be an untapped market among America's more than 35 million people who are age 65 or older.
About 800,000 Americans with an average age of 80 are in assisted-living facilities, according to the National Center for Assisted Living.
There might only be 30 or 40 elderly people living on each ship, so companies wouldn't have to worry about being known as "the old folks cruise," Dr. Lindquist said. That way they could also mingle with a younger crowd, said Lindquist, who got the idea after taking a cruise with her parents, who are in their late 50s.
So far, the cruise industry hasn't enthusiastically responded to the proposal.
The two biggest cruise companies, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., refused to comment on the plan.
About 9.8 million people traveled on cruise ships last year and more than a quarter were 60 or older, according to industry figures.
But the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade group that represents the major companies, doesn't think the industry is prepared to handle a large number of permanent residents with special medical needs.
"Cruises are intended to be a vacation. They're not intended to be a long-term assisted-living facility," said Michael Crye, council president.
Cruise lines have also been marketing themselves to a more active crowd over the past two decades, getting away from an old saying that the typical passenger was "newlywed, overfed or nearly dead."
Crye said none of the council's members were considering Dr. Lindquist's idea, but agreed one day there might be a market for this type of cruising. "Baby boomers are going to be over the next decade or 20 years people that are going to be in this category," he said.
The proposal might work, but it's more likely just a "romantic idea," said Richard Grimes, president and CEO of Assisted Living Federation of America. Assisted-living homes are regulated in all 50 states, but there would be little control at sea because most ships are foreign-flagged and travel in international waters, he said.
Grimes also didn't think "there would be a lot of people who would want to call the ship and a cabin their home. "I'd love to think I could go out on a cruise ship and live out my life," he said. "But the fact is that as people get older they want to be around their families more."
But Fay Aubuchon, 52, of St. Peters, Mo., thinks that when she has grandchildren, they would have plenty of reasons to visit if she and her husband lived on a ship.
"The kids would love to come because granny has a great swimming pool," said Aubuchon, one of the people who contacted Dr. Lindquist. "To me, I can't imagine anything better than that."
XFor more information, visit Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine at www.medschool.northwestern.edu or the International Council of Cruise Lines at www.iccl.org.