Good, Old-Fashioned Respect for Retirees in Panama

Call me old-fashioned if you will. But I’ve never seen why embracing modern times should mean you have to leave behind all the good things about…well, the good old days.

I suppose that’s what I enjoy most about life in Panama—the good old days live on. The country is always quick to embrace new trends. (You’ll see everyone from school kids to Kuna tribeswomen with smart phones nowadays.) But “old-fashioned” manners are still expected and very much in evidence here.

You’ll see that families talk to each other during dinner—not to their phones. Strangers still say buenas (short for “good day” or “good evening”) when they step into an office or even an elevator. And older citizens aren’t treated with impatience or derision. They’re referred to respectfully as de tercera edad—“of the third age”—a term that denotes all the positive aspects of an active retirement.

My 76-year old father has epitomized the “third age” since he retired at 63. He loves going out and engaging with people, and Panamanians really respond to him.

The supermarket workers at his favorite branch are always willing to help him with hard-to-reach or hard-to-find items. He has bank cards, but prefers to write checks. While I roll my eyes at the extra two minutes this takes, the cashiers are laughing at his jokes or asking him where he’s from. Then the teenage bag boys help him to the car. Without fail they say, “have a good night,” and close his door for him.

Even the government makes his life easier—a local Pensionado or Pensioner law lays out discounts of 10% to 50% in virtually every sector imaginable. Whether my Dad wants to buy property…or medication…or a plane ticket to the States, he’s able to save on important transactions…and that means he can live extremely well on a fixed income.

Created in 1987, the Pensionado program showed that Panama was serious about caring for its “third age” population. And it inspired organizations nationwide to do the same.

Banks and public pharmacies have dedicated lines so pensionados don’t have to stand for long. The University of Panama offers a long list of subsidized courses (from as little as $25 for three months of classes) especially for active retirees…people who want to learn everything from computer programming to photography. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli recently inaugurated a new lending center that provides financing specifically for pensionados. And the list goes on and on.

So is it any wonder that locals, observing this, have learned to be respectful and helpful? From the top down, this continues to be a society of people who care about others and enjoy interacting. They may have shiny new smart phones in their back pockets, but they also have those good old-fashioned manners. All of this makes life easy for Dad…and me, too.

My father became a citizen of Panama before the Pensionado law was enacted—but these days you can gain permanent residence through the Pensionado program. The main requirement is quite simple: you must derive a pension of at least $1,000 a month.

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