Blue Zones, Part 1: How the World's Oldest People Make Their Money Last
What we can learn from centenarians in Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula
(In 2008, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner published his bestselling book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, about the five “longevity pockets” around the world: The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan and Loma Linda, Calif. For this weekly series, Next Avenue Money and Work & Purpose editor Richard Eisenberg, a Gerontological Society of America Journalists in Aging Fellow, takes a different kind of look at the Blue Zones. Rather than focusing on their diets, he reports on how the people in the Blue Zones make their money last their long lives and what Americans and America can learn from this. This installment of the series, Part One, is about The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica.)
Most Americans think of Costa Rica as a small, lush, peaceful vacation spot in Central America, between Nicaragua and Panama. What they generally don’t know, however, is that a part of Costa Rica tourists rarely visit (the rural Nicoya Peninsula towns of Nicoya, Santa Cruz and environs) contains the largest cluster of the world’s oldest people. In this so-called Blue Zone, more than 43 people are 100 or older— centenarians — and many others are in their late-90s.
In January, 2019, I visited there and interviewed seven of them (ranging from age 96 to 104), who were generally more spry, animated and cheerful, but less well-off, than I expected. I also spoke with experts on the oldest residents of the Nicoya Peninsula, aiming to learn how these people have made their money last so long and what lessons they could share.
The results could be especially useful for Americans, and America. For one thing, 70% of Americans are worried about running out of money, according to the 2018 Wells Fargo Retirement study. For another, the American population is not only growing older, it leads the world with the largest number of centenarians (72,000 today and expected to grow to 378,000 by 2050, according to the United Nations).
The Health of Older Residents in the Costa Rica Blue Zone
Dan Buettner’s landmark Blue Zones book masterfully described the health habits and genetics of the oldest Blue Zones inhabitants: People in the Nicoya Peninsula have a heart disease rate 20% lower than the rest of Costa Rica and die of cancer at a rate 23% lower than elsewhere in the country. Their diet is low-calorie, low fat, and plant-based, Buettner wrote. I wanted to visit Nicoya to find out about the money and work side of the longevity equation, which Buettner didn’t write much about.
What I discovered is that Nicoya Blue Zoners generally don’t worry about money or running out of it. “To have money or not have money is the same thing,” Pablo Castillo Carrillo, 96, told me. Jose Bonifacio Villegas Fonseca, 101, said, reflectingly: “Sometimes I have enough. Sometimes I don’t.” Does he ever run out of money?, I asked. “All the time,” he laughed.
To make their money last, though, they rely on: the generosity of their family members (often having eight or more children from multiple spouses or partners); the government’s free public health care system; small government-funded pensions; what Costa Ricans call “plan de vida” (a strong sense of purpose) and a conviction — call it an article of faith — that God will provide. “If you’re a good person, God treats you well,” said Dominga Alvarez Rosales, 104. “If you’re a bad person, you don’t live long.”
Interviewing Centenarians in the Costa Rica Blue Zone
My Blue Zones Sherpa for this expedition: Jorge Vindas, founder of the Asociación Peninsula de Nicoya Zona Azul, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Nicoya Peninsula residents over 90, especially the poorest ones. While I visited, Vinda held a beautiful Santa Cruz photo exhibit of 53 Nicoya centenarians; you can see the photos here. (My translator for the trip: Sylvia Barreto Benites, an educator and founder of Renaissance Institute, an educational nonprofit in Costa Rica.)
Vindas knows the oldest Nicoyans intimately, having become their adored friend and adviser. He helps ensure they have essentials for living. All profits from The Blue Zones Store go to Vindas’ nonprofit. Vindas confided that “receiving gratitude from individuals gives me my greatest satisfaction, but I am aware that what I am doing is just a drop in the bucket.”
Most of the oldest Blue Zone residents of Costa Rica, Vindas says, didn’t plan to live to 100 or beyond. But they’re glad with whatever they have (“I’m happy as a clam,” said Trinidad Espinoza Medina, 102), often thanking God for their long lives. Though typically taciturn, what they do say is sage.
Vindas told me that when he initially interviewed Blue Zone elder Panchita Castillo for Buettner, “I had a feeling something of great spiritual importance was happening.” (She died at 110 two years ago.) I felt something similar when I met her nonagenarian son Pablo Castillo Carrillo, as well as the other humble Blue Zone residents I interviewed in their modest homes off the dirt roads of Nicoya and Santa Cruz.
Here’s my take on how the oldest residents of the Nicoya Peninsula make their money last their long lives:
Health Care and Long-Term Care
Costa Rica has a fine, mostly free, public health care and long-term care system (called Caja), which keeps health expenses down for the oldest residents. “There are very few out-of-pocket health care costs,” said William Dow, the University of California, Berkeley professor who runs the Costa Rica Longevity and Healthy Aging Study, or CRELES. The risk of being stung with catastrophic health care costs is low, unlike in the United States, he added. In the Nicoya Peninsula, Buettner told me, “it’s not about getting sick people less sick, it’s about keeping people well in the first place (through preventative care).”
Free health care “is very, very important” to the centenarians, said Dr. Jose Retana Arias, the health care director of Santa Cruz Retana, “because most centenarians here are from poor families.”
The oldest Blue Zone people are generally healthy, take few medications and rarely have dementia (reason: unknown). But what especially helps them is a government-run program from the National Council for Older People. It sends doctors, nurses and pharmacists from local clinics to homes of the most vulnerable older Costa Ricans every three months to meet with them and their caregivers, providing treatment and — more importantly — preventative guidance.
“We educate the caregivers on how to take care of the centennials,” said Marcela Mora Castillo, a pharmacist at the government's EBAIS clinic in Santa Cruz. She and her colleagues talk with them and their loved ones about potential diseases and, Castillo said, “we help them organize what to eat and which medications to take and when.” The biggest health concern: malnutrition, since some Blue Zone people skimp on food to save money.
The national council brings food and personal care goods to these people, too. Think of it as a traveling, government-run, long-term care system.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are rare in Costa Rica, since family members typically provide any long-term care needed. Facilities, such as the one where a Blue Zoner I met (Ana Reyneri Fonseca Gutierrez, 104) has lived for a year, are usually state-run and paid for by a combination of the government and a portion of residents’ government pensions. At Gutierrez's nursing home, I was surprised to see that management raises farm animals — for the enjoyment of residents and to bring in revenue.
Gutierrez, who previously made and sold baked goods, was married for 68 years; her husband, a woodcutter, carpenter and farmer died three years ago. Today, she said, “I get good care and have friends who live here and who come to visit.”
The oldest men and women of the Nicoya Peninsula live simply on their small incomes, and always have. “What would I do with a mountain of money?” asked Fonseca, rhetorically.
They spend little and rarely travel. Occasionally, they splurge, but even that is relative. Gutierrez told me she's saving up money from her government pension to buy a little television for her nursing home room.
As Nicoya’s Interim Mayor Adriana Rodriguez told me: “They’re accustomed to a life of simplicity.” Roger Petersen, a San Jose, Costa Rica-based lawyer, echoed that. “There’s not much competition for status and moving up," said Petersen. "People there are content with what they have.”
Often, they live in the same homes they have for their entire adult lives, perhaps inherited from their parents. Sometimes, they rent out a room to a person, or couple, caring for them.
Occasionally, as with former farmhand Aniano Zuniga Zuniga, 103, they’re taken in by people they once worked for, who then cover any expenses. “I have been adopted by my boss, who sees me as a grandfather,” said Zuniga, who was “adopted” at 75.
Pensions and Savings
Although the Costa Rican version of Social Security (part of Caja) lets workers voluntarily put money into their eventual government-sponsored retirement pensions, many Nicoya Pensinsula people in their 90s and 100s haven’t. As farmers, farmhands, cowboys and home-based food sellers, their work was too informal for that system, let alone receiving the equivalent of a 401(k) or private pension.
Instead, they receive public pensions that often amount to the equivalent of about $130 to $200 a month. By contrast, the average monthly Social Security benefit in the United States is $1,342; of course, the cost of living in America is higher, too.
The non-voluntary pensions so many older Blue Zone residents receive are “based on the idea that even though they didn’t put money into the system, the system owes them something,” said Retana. Rodriguez, the interim mayor of Nicoya, noted: “Knowledge that they can access a pension through the government gives them quite a bit of peace.”
Many of them don’t have, and haven't had, enough money to save at banks, said Danny Gomez, general manager of Banco Nacional in Nicoya. As Medina told me: “Whatever I made, I spent.”
Others, though, have saved regularly at local banks (which have tellers specifically for elderly customers), and still do. And still others save money, but not at the bank. They keep their spare cash at home, or on them.
In some cases, they’ve plowed their earnings from farming back into their farms, to grow their modest wealth.
None of the Blue Zone residents I spoke with invested in stocks or mutual funds, which didn’t surprise banker Gomez. “The stock market is a very sophisticated system and very few people here are in the stock market. I can hardly think of any who are elderly who are,” he told me.
Typically, the people in their 90s and older in the Nicoya Peninsula spent most of their adult lives working long days on farms, starting during pre-dawn hours. The physical labor they did to make a living helped them stay fit and healthy; none of the Blue Zoners I met was overweight and many were strikingly thin.
Most stopped working in their 70s or so. "They’re hard-working people who have worked doing what they love,” said Gomez.
Family and Caregiving
In many Blue Zones, such as the Nicoya Peninsula, said Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and creator of the Blue Zones True Happiness Test, “there’s no expectation for the older people to need a great financial plan, because they know they’ll be taken care of by their family.”
They also tell their children, Buettner said, that “they expect to help them, but also expect to be part of the family for their entire lives. Making that come true sometimes means having the courage to tell your kids ‘I want to live with, or near, you and I expect you to look after me.' That goes without saying in the Blue Zones. So you save a ton of money because you don’t need a nurse and you save a helluva lot on rent.”
Unlike in the United States, where adult children and grandchildren of the oldest Americans often live far from them, virtually all the older people I met in the Nicoya Peninsula have one or more children or grandchildren living with, or next door, to them. They, and other family members, provide care or money as needed. In some cases, the centenarians and nonagenarians have given money or land to their kids or grandkids and are now, in effect, getting paid back.
“I just went to the general store and one of my daughters left money for me there,” said Pablo Castillo Carrillo, the 96-year-old father of 18. “All of my children come to visit and give me money. They’re all very good to me. I was a good father; for your children not to forget you, you must be good.” His daughter, Mercedes, lives next door.
Fonseca, who lives with one daughter, told me that his eight children bring him food and help fix things around his house. "I am very lucky. All of them love me very much and my grandchildren love me. I have a very happy life," he said.
Medina, whose farmer husband died decades ago, lives in her daughter Marta’s house, and gets help from her other 11 children and her grandchildren. Marta raises turkeys to bring in money for her mother and her.
“It’s really odd to see someone who doesn’t have children here,” said Gomez. “When they don’t is when problems arise — they don’t have anyone to help them.”
What Americans and U.S. Policymakers Can Learn
Americans and policymakers in the United States can learn a few lessons from the older inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula and what their government does for them.
Comparing the family support in the Nicoya Peninsula with that of the United States, Dow said: “We either have to make a decision to truly finance long-term care in America or we need to increase our ability to support family members who are providing informal long-term care. We don’t have a good system for that now.”
When I asked Vindas what he thought Americans could learn from the oldest residents of the Nicoya Peninsula Blue Zone, he responded: “To copy their lifestyle, which includes eating better, always having physical activity, knowing that family comes first and always having faith in a supreme power. If you put them all together, you will automatically have a better life.”
(This is the first part of the three-part Next Avenue series: Blue Zones: How the World's Oldest People Make Their Money Last. Part II is about how the oldest people of the Blue Zones of Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy and Ikaria, Greece make their money last. Part III is about how the oldest people of the Blue Zone of Loma Linda, Calif. make their money last.)
(This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and The Commonwealth Fund.)