Brave new life: Retirement planning in Belgium

There’s more to retirement planning than making the numbers add up: think downsizing, communal living and keeping active.

The thought of retirement seems to instil joy and fear in equal measure. For some it is a reward for years of endeavour; the chance to relax and pursue all those interests that seemed impossible because there were never enough hours in the day alongside full-time employment or raising a family. For others, a lack of daily routine and few interests beyond their former job leaves them peering into a daunting abyss. Which is why there are other considerations, beyond financial planning.

Peter Adye held a variety of roles in manufacturing and product supply in the UK, the US and Belgium before retiring. His career with Procter & Gamble spanned 34 years. He says giving sufficient thought to planning for life after full-time employment is a key element. “You ought to be thinking about it at least five years before, maybe even longer. Not just the financial side, but about how you’re going to spend your time.”

He advises considering how you and your partner are going to cope with spending 24 hours a day together, seven days a week. Discussing retirement plans is vital. “Sometimes spouses have entirely different dreams about what’s going to happen when they retire, and when it happens their dreams may be entirely incompatible.” 

These dreams often include the thought of downsizing a home and moving somewhere new. With children grown and leading their own lives, the family home may have become too large. Having spare rooms for visitors is a nice idea but, economically, it can be better to put guests up in a nearby hotel and reduce the energy costs that come with having to heat and maintain a larger property.

Alternatively, spare rooms can become a source of income for those open to the idea of renting them out or running a bed and breakfast. For those who love gardening, the chance to have more time to spend outdoors and be creative is stimulating. The risk is always that failing health in later life can turn that pleasure into a chore.

For all these reasons, communal living in some form can become appealing in retirement. Location is always important, and having a home in a central spot, close to public transport, shops and medical services, can make financial sense for those willing to swap their house for an apartment. Life in an apartment also means less space to maintain and can include communal areas for all residents, like gardens, the maintenance of which is included in any property charges.

Another concept winning support from retirees looking at downsizing and reducing the need for property maintenance is known as intergenerational living. The idea is to blend seniors, families and students in social living activities that help create a sense of community.

Li Mei Tsien, who specialises in urban developments for the Brussels-based architectural company B612 Associates, says she can see the attraction for some older people of living in a retirement village. “If they stick together in a place only for senior people, of course they can have activities. And sometimes those activities better match their expectations.” However, she says, “it’s more artificial. And maybe they can be longing for something more linked to real life. It’s a balance that existed in the past and can still exist and be interesting.” She says multigenerational communities can offer a better quality of life.

For any expat considering retirement in Belgium, language is an issue. Joining community groups or clubs to help fill some of your newly acquired free time is a lot easier if you have some understanding of the language spoken where you live. While English has become a lingua franca in Belgium, especially in the larger cities like Brussels, having some ability in French or Dutch will make all the difference.

It’s also a factor when it comes to healthcare. Most expats who have spent an extended period in Belgium are very complimentary about the quality of care at both the GP and hospital levels. So, while health insurance premiums can be quite high in Belgium, most people are happy with the level of care they receive in return. And if there’s a question of diminishing health and being cared for in a home, local language skills are a must.


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