Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Think beyond a single housing solution

Q Isn't it best to allow older folk to age in the same neighbourhoods they have lived in for decades rather than in isolated retirement villages?

We have to stop thinking that there is a single housing solution for older people. Many who choose retirement communities do so because they find living in their own homes - ageing in place - very isolating, even depressing. Even if you have a child or friend visiting every day for an hour, you are still alone for 23 hours. A positive development would be if 10 years from now, an older person in Singapore can say: 'There are four different ways I can age: I can live with my son or daughter, I can bring in home care, I can go to adult day services or I can go to a beautiful senior living community.' This is really about enabling choices.

Q What is the typical profile of someone who lives in a Sunrise community?

At Sunrise, more than 80 per cent of clients are women, many of whom are single or widowed. They have been career women and can thus afford private paying senior living. We also have people whose children live overseas. Most of our residents are in the 78 to 88 age group, so they are the parents of baby boomers.

Overall, only about 8 per cent of older folk in America - or about two million people - live in senior living communities. Generally, the vast majority would have the option of living with or near children. But what if only 2 per cent to 8 per cent do not have that option? Do the maths. It's still a huge market.

If only 1 per cent of seniors in Singapore were to find senior living most attractive and affordable, that's still 3,300 people. Forget hundreds, just build one retirement home.

The marketplace will tell you whether or not it's attractive. If someone builds a retirement community older folk want to go to, the marketplace will take care of it. We started with US$12,000 (S$16,400) and built it to US$2 bil- lion.

Q The Government here released land on a 30-year lease which developers can use to build Singapore's first retirement home. But no one is interested in building on such a short lease. Would you build on a 30-year lease?

I would never build a community on a 30-year lease. Our buildings have special features for non-ambulatory residents, are elegantly designed and richly furnished and therefore quite expensive to construct. They are designed for more than 50 years of expected service.

Once they are full of residents paying a monthly rental for room and services, they are also an income-producing asset that can be sold, but a 30-year lease would sharply reduce its value.

It would also be hard to justify capital improvements and expenditures in the last decade of the lease which would be detrimental to residents.

Q What has been your biggest innovation so far at Sunrise?

Our biggest innovation was in services for Alzheimer's or dementia patients. Our communities have special neighbourhoods set aside for memory care. Each resident's suite is small but the common areas are spacious and with barrier-free access to the outdoors. There are no dead ends so residents never feel trapped. We take very iconic design elements from a house - like a living room - and make sure it's there. We also have things from their past - like sewing machines and old pianos - sprinkled throughout these 'reminiscence neighbourhoods' as we call them. Residents may not recognise family members, but some may be able to play a song from 60 years ago.

Source: Straits Times, 28 Apr 2010

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