As publisher of the Australian Over 50s Living & Lifestyle Guide, Deepa Calais has the opportunity to meet many people who live in retirement communities. She gets to meet dozens of managers from retirement villages and ask them questions which can go well beyond the surface. She is in a unique position to cut through the marketing hype and hone-in on the real benefits of living in a retirement community. Deepa shares some of what she has seen and heard.
Extensive Facilities Just A Short Stroll Away
The first time I visited a retirement village, was in Brisbane, when I was not quite qualified for life in an over fifties resort. Nevertheless, I was blown away by the facilities, as I was zipped around in a buggy to see the manicured gardens, the swimming pool, the tennis courts, the cinema, the arts and crafts rooms and the on-site beauty salon. Then, off we went into the clubhouse, to check out the bars, restaurants and socializing space. I was very surprised, I had come expecting a rather drab and depressing place and instead, here I was virtually in a holiday resort.
The facilities made a big impression on me, and then when I had the security arrangements explained to me, and all the activities that people could do, I was pretty much ready to pack and move into the retirement community. Admittedly, not every retirement community will be as well appointed as my first tour, and being from the media, it’s just possible that there was an element of show and tell from my guide. However, in most retirement communities, the clubhouse, cafeteria, the swimming pool, activities areas and on-site hair salon appear to have become a minimum and the list of amenities is growing.
Residents Can Become More Active Than Before
Of course, all these amenities are available outside retirement communities as well. However, because everything in a village is just a short stroll away, and you don’t have to battle with traffic and parking, the convenience means that residents actually make use of the facilities a lot more often. By moving into a retirement village or other form of retirement community, my perception is that people become more active. Sometimes, even taking up new sports for the first time like bowling or activities such as Zumba or yoga.
Another factor that encourages participation is that the facilities, such as tennis courts, are often free to use or come at a very notional charge that may be needed to fund an outside instructor, such as for a yoga class.
With this kind of active lifestyle that one can live in a retirement village, I was not surprised by some of the official statistics that indicate fewer hospital admissions and GP visits for village residents. According to an October 2014 report from the Property Council of Australia, “Living in a retirement village reduces the number of hospital admissions through the facilities and supports offered… Compared to the family home, retirement villages offer a safer environment …age appropriate designs such as ramps and railings help reduce accidents … the ability of retirement village staff to offer immediate assistance can reduce the number of ambulance calls and hospital admissions”. Visits to the GP are also fewer by village residents according to the same report: “Seniors often require multiple GP visits, on average six to seven times a year. While many of these are necessary, there may also be cases in which a qualified nurse or retirement village staff member are able to assist with minor health concerns or provide someone to talk to regarding health.”
A Feeling Of Security
I mentioned that I was impressed by the physical security features during my first tour of a retirement community. These usually include the normal features of a gated community, security patrols and personal emergency alarms. Whilst these are very important, residents also mention a more secure “feeling” which is equally important as the physical components. This feeling of security, I believe is the peace of mind of simply knowing that help is close at hand if needed.
Medical assistance, home support and care services in retirement villages are increasing. It is now commonplace to have at least some nursing or care staff at hand in the retirement village and there are regular visits from allied health professionals that are coordinated by the village operator. Other health professionals are almost at the doorstep.
The attitude and training of staff has a lot to do with providing that sense of security and does not appear on any ‘features’ list in a brochure. You can tell straight away in a matter of minutes of a visit to a retirement village though, if the staff are caring and concerned or cool and aloof. Just take a walk outside with the village manager. Does she refer to residents by name or does she call everybody “Dear”. And the depth of conversation is, “is everything okay?” or is it, “Jamie your grandson visited yesterday, how was that trip he took to Bali?”
I’ve come across both degrees of staff involvement, but by and large it tends to be on the positive side and believe that although difficult to define, the “sense of security” is a great benefit of retirement villages.
Freedom To Travel – Both Time and Finance
Now here’s another surprising advantage that I was not expecting to hear when I talk to residents – living in a retirement community gives them more freedom, time and the finances to travel. I was surprised because I thought the opposite would be true. Many people sell the family home when moving into a retirement village. The cost of a unit in a retirement village could well be less than what you may get from the sale of the family home. So by moving, many take the opportunity to unlock the equity that has been building up in the family home. You could end up with a small nest egg to use to tick off the travelling dreams that are
on the bucket list.
The trips themselves tend to be longer, because you are more comfortable in terms of the security of your house when you are away.
Sense Of Community
A big plus that I hear about again and again is the sense of community that residents find in a retirement village. It’s quite common to hear words to the effect of, “I didn’t know my neighbours in the old family house, but I know everybody in the village. Everybody says hello and has the time to stop and chat. It’s a really good feeling of belonging.”
This sense of community and companionship shows up in many day to day situations. For instance, one lady from a retirement village in Redlands, who was rushing by with her walker, very excited about the day’s shopping trip, told me that although the village was just walking distance from the shopping centre, she preferred to wait for the village transport to take her, because then she could go with a group of friends and make an afternoon of it.
I remember another casual conversation I had with a resident in a village in Ashmore, which provided a great insight. She explained that if you are in your seventies and living in a granny flat with your grown up children, of course there are many positive sides to that, but there is also a certain social isolation. The children go to work, the grandkids to school or university and you could basically be alone all day. It takes a lot of discipline to go out and do things or meet friends every day or even a couple of times a week, in order to stay active and healthy. Compare this scenario to a retirement village, when you just have to step out of your door to find companionship. The companionship can just be a chat or somebody with whom to share an activity or an outing.
Support at the most vulnerable of times
This sense of community and the friendships that build up over time in a village environment are also there at the most vulnerable times of life. If your partner has to move to an aged care facility, or if the inevitable happens and one partner of a couple dies, the surviving partner will need support, not only during that devastating time, but in the months and years that follow.
In a retirement village, you will be amongst friends and people with the understanding that only personal experience brings. Everybody is in the same boat. The partner left behind will not only find some solace but also feel at home in a community with much needed emotional support and surviving friendships. The linkages that are made in retirement villages and the support system are there when are you or your life partner are going to be most vulnerable and isolated.
At a deep level, the basic change in recent years has been that as a community, we are realising in Australia that there are real lifestyle and quality of life issues as we age and live longer. We all want to have meaningful lives for as long as we can, but we are starting to see that if we want the whole experience of ageing to be positive and an independent joyful experience, then we need to plan how we will make it so.
The story I am seeing is that retirement villages are a practical solution for positive ageing for some people because not only do they provide the infrastructure, they free up our time from things such as maintenance, they relieve our stress from worrying about physical security and health emergencies and then they provide a village culture and atmosphere that ensures our remaining years are active, independent and constructive.