Retirement villages: new-age communities or grey ghettos?

May 17, 2015
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Whatever retirement villages are called these days, they still sound like ghettos to me. Whether marketed as retirement communities, seniors housing, or lifestyle villages, they have an image problem….at least for many baby boomers. Will we ever want to live in a gated community of retirees? Do we want to live among people who resemble the self-satisfied couples in the advertisements with their silver hair, gleaming teeth and champagne flutes? And what about the financial scandals associated with some villages?

Yet I keep reading that the residents of retirement villages are usually very happy. Survey after survey finds high levels of contentment. Residents are rarely sorry they’ve moved from the family home. They’d encourage their friends, left rattling around big houses, to follow their lead. On the whole they’re having a great time. Life is better.

The latest Australian research is a pilot study based on 136 people aged 59-95 who live in two villages run by the non-profit IRT. The research was undertaken by Professor Hal Kendig, of the Australian National University, and his team. When asked about the pros and cons of living in a village, 93 per cent reported at least one advantage, and only 25 per cent reported any problem. What is it people like? Primarily it’s the social contact, the activities, and a feeling of community. “Lots of friendly people,” one resident summarised. They’re relieved to have sloughed off home maintenance and gardening chores. And they feel safe and secure. Asked if their overall quality of life had improved, 55 per cent said ‘yes, definitely’ and another 36 per cent cited ‘some’ improvement. The problems mentioned by the minority included delays with maintenance, parking, and some unspecified ‘issues’ with residents.

As well, village residents gained more years of independence compared to older people who stayed in their own homes. The village residents were two years older before they received in-home aged care services. They were an extra four to five years older before they went into a nursing home. The numbers were small and indicative only but if these findings were replicated in a bigger study across the industry, then retirement village living may prove beneficial not only for residents but government revenue.

And yet, and yet….. older Australians continue to be wary and reluctant. Overwhelmingly they prefer to age in their own homes, and only 4 per cent of people over 65 and 8 per cent over 75 live in a retirement village. The potential problems are highlighted by University of Queensland academic Dr Maree Petersen. “The contracts are one of the most complex people will ever enter into,” she told me. “People are told this is a lifestyle decision not a financial decision but it is a financial decision.”

Poorer residents can be caught by rising monthly service fees and constrained in their options to move out by the cost of deferred fees paid on exiting. “People have said they feel trapped and can’t afford to leave,” she said. Also, her survey of 310 residents flushed out some problems. Villages could be “a hotbed of gossip” and “lack privacy” and “management authoritarianism” was mentioned. But most residents were happy and 70 per cent would recommend it to friends.

Mary Wood, a former advisor to Labor’s Tanya Plibersek in government, now heads the Retirement Living Council. It represents village owners and managers, from the commercial end like Lend Lease to not-for-profits like IRT, and is part of the Property Council of Australia. Mary admits to an image problem. “To the extent there’s news, it tends to be bad news…an unhappy resident who feels they’ve been exploited,” she said. “In any sector there are owners who’ll treat people badly and this is a reputational risk to the many good providers. People don’t see the surveys about the satisfaction rates.”

Typical of the bad news was a contentious piece last year by influential financial journalist Alan Kohler. He called for the sector to be cleaned up, and claimed people signing contracts don’t understand a deferred fee of more than $100,000 may need to be paid when it’s time to move on.

Mary agrees there’s a need for national legislation to replace the state and territory laws that govern the sector, as well as a need for an industry-standard contract to replace the current hodge-podge. “But people need to understand moving to a retirement village is not a property decision, it’s a lifestyle decision,” she said. “People should not go in expecting there’ll be a capital gain.” Here’s a link to the council’s fact sheets.

Apparently baby boomers want luxuries their parents never demanded, like heated swimming pools and gyms. And they want the re-assurance that in-home services, such as personal care (above and beyond the rationed government packages), will be on tap when they get frail. The industry is busily responding.

In my very street, an eight-storey ‘seniors living’ complex is being built. If the price was right, and I ever wanted to downsize, and the legal and financial advice was positive, would I consider it? I’d prefer a friendly, multi-generational apartment building. But do they exist? I’d like to live around friends but will that be possible? I don’t want to be surrounded by conservative busy-bodies. But would I? Happiness, friendly people, activities, community…Let’s say I’m having to examine my prejudices about retirement villages.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please leave a comment.

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