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Role of ‘community’ in modern senior living

MAIN IMAGE: Gus van der Spek, developer, Cape Town

Staff Writer

Property developers are always looking for ways to attract prospective buyers. In the fiercely competitive senior living sector, trends in technology and healthcare have dominated the design of modern retirement communities.

But what if developers are missing what their prospective residents are looking for entirely?

To try and stand out from the crowd, there’s increased emphasis on the ‘lifestyle’ aspect of senior living, with many developers focusing on providing high-end amenities on-site: from tennis courts to cinema rooms and health spas.

This is also an aspect real estate agents should keep in mind when marketing senior living options. They have an even bigger responsibility to offer senior citizens who buy what could most possibly be their last property exactly what they are looking for. There are several various options when it comes to senior living and communities of senior staying in the same estate, complex or even in the same building.

“However, what some developers don’t realise is that prospective residents aren’t looking for the retirement village or estate with the most bells and whistles – they’re looking for a new home that will help them feel part of a close-knit community,” explains Gus van der Spek, developer of Wytham Estate in Upper Kenilworth, Cape Town.

“It’s important to have lifestyle-focused facilities on-site, but for the reason that they promote social interaction and are a convenient location to meet new people,” he adds.

The COVID-19 pandemic was particularly difficult for the elderly who lived alone, as the threat of infection caused them to isolate from the external communities that had once been their social lifeline, for their own safety.

“As more research has been conducted into the psychological impact of aging, we have increasingly understood the role that a strong sense of community plays in maintaining both mental and physical health. This has resulted in property developers strategically designing retirement lifestyle villages and estates in a way that promotes safe, fun interaction,” says Van der Spek.

As people get older it is almost inevitable that their social circles will shrink, but the effects of loneliness can be devastating. An increase in the risk of chronic illness, cognitive decline and depression has all been linked to social isolation.

But what is co-living? According to You have earned it co-living should not be confused with co-housing and refers to a community of people living in a single home with shared spaces such as kitchen, dining and living areas and sometimes even bathrooms.

Co-housing is a community of private homes on a single property surrounding a shared space or “common house”. Co-living can provide middle and low-income earning seniors with a place to call home and a community, a concept that supports a purpose-driven life. Seniors can cook together and share responsibilities. Some co-living communities provide amenities such as restaurants and beautifully maintained gardens. Some communities provide exercise areas, onsite healthcare, equipment, and group activities. Many seniors are tired of living alone, and a co-living opportunity provides a great solution.

Co-living is a viable and universally popular model for seniors. Its simplicity and minimalism are perfect for the senior looking to downsize, escape the suburbs and alleviate the responsibility of maintaining a large home. It is perfect for empty nesters who are in a life transition, perfect for the senior who wishes to live a six-month here, six-month there existence (travelling to and from children and grandchildren who live elsewhere), perfect for a low maintenance living solution in keeping with meagre SA pensions. A win-win situation for most!

Co-living encompasses the 4 C’s – cost-saving, convenience, comfort, and community. This kind of co-living is ideal for independent retirees. It is not so ideal for seniors as they transition into their 80’s, as many of the “older olds” may require more assistance and care options.

Retirement villages or estates that are deliberately designed to promote a sense of community can go a long way in mitigating this. “As a result of the pandemic, many older adults are now considering moving into senior living for the first time because these developments promise a built-in community, they will become a part of,” says Van der Spek. “They hope that by being surrounded by fellow retirees, they will find regular companionship that would not only improve their quality of life – but possibly extend it.”

Science supports Van der Spek’s theory. Alzheimer’s researchers conducted a four-year study of older adults and found that frequent social in older adults led to improved thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering. The study concluded that the most socially active older adults were 47% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than the least social older adults.

With this in mind, it’s important that the physical design and layout of the retirement estate or village should foster social connectedness onsite, in pleasant and age-appropriate surroundings.

Choosing senior living option

Van der Spek suggests that retirees wanting to move into a retirement lifestyle estate or village with a strong community focus should look out for the following features when touring a prospective location:

Common areas

“Large dining rooms, game rooms, lounges and libraries for simply relaxing with a book – make sure that there are multiple rooms in the development large enough to accommodate a group of people. Ideally, these areas should also be designed in a way that promotes casual interaction, for example a room with a large television where residents can gather to watch a sports match.”

Open-plan layouts. “This design trend emphasises natural light, open space and fewer walls and helps to subconsciously encourage socialisation rather than isolating people by placing them in separate, closed-off rooms. Also look out for well-maintained outdoor areas as another indicator that the developers have built with community in mind.”

Clubs or groups set up for residents with similar interests. “Making new friends can be hard – even if you’re close to one another. Choosing a senior living option where there are organised clubs or groups focused on various interests makes it easier to strike up a conversation with like-minded people.”

Regular social events. “Much like the clubs of the previous point, hosting regular social events such as a weekly braai or games night makes it simple to meet your neighbours. Be sure to ask if these kinds of events are planned on your tour.”

High-speed WiFi. “While sitting by yourself looking at a screen may sound like the opposite of ‘social’ the reality is that during the pandemic, many kinds of communities had to move online and become virtual. A strong internet connection will keep you connected to friends and family that you aren’t able to see in person” he concludes.

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