As regular readers know, my parents finally moved to a retirement community earlier this year. After pushing back for years, they finally decided to make the move after visiting the place last year. Why this one and not another, especially since this is not close to Mumbai? This is because my mother’s sister also moved here a year or so back and her cousin also has a flat in the same complex. With both me and my sister living outside India, they realised that when it would come to an emergency, there was no one they could turn to. Almost all our relatives and extended family had moved away or had passed on and those who were still in Mumbai were either too far away or not close enough to call in an emergency. The pandemic showed them that they could not live alone and the multiple lockdowns cemented their decision to move away to someplace where they have people around them in an emergency and most importantly have immediate medical attention should they need it.
In a country like India where family is everything, it’s surprising, but today there are many retirement communities across the country. A senior living home or retirement community is a residential community or housing complex designed for older adults that provides facilities and socialisation opportunities to make life easier and more comfortable for seniors. Many communities also offer assisted living facilities for those who are no longer mobile due to illness or old age. Most retirement communities in India only allow people aged 55+ to live on their premises, although there is no restriction on who can buy. Facilities in a retirement community home usually include housekeeping, laundry, community dining, a convenience store, doctor on call, nurse and ambulance on-premises and some even have a clubhouse offering facilities for socialisation like a theatre, a gym, a library, a swimming pool, among others. Some facilities offer physiotherapy and Ayurveda facilities as well and these communities organise social, cultural and spiritual activities for the residents. Virtually all retirement communities are located on the outskirts of Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities but within 10-20 km of a good hospital with which the community will usually have a tie-up. Most communities also provide guesthouses so relatives and friends visiting residents can stay, have some kind of transport to the nearest town, and security arrangements. The homes and premises have ramps and are wheelchair friendly. Bathrooms have grab rails and anti-skid tiles, rooms have emergency buttons and fire alarms and other safety features.
Earlier in India, senior care was confined to old age homes, usually meant for the destitute and run in the name of a charity. Case in point, when we let everyone know about my parent’s move to a retirement community, eyebrows were raised and comments were made about moving to an old age home. But this is far from the truth. Today a large number of senior citizens, especially in the middle and upper classes and more so those whose children either live overseas or not in the same city as they opt to live in a retirement community to continue to live independently for as long as they could. And when they can no longer live independently, there are options to have a caretaker live with them so they can continue to live independently.
According to the consultancy firm Jones Lang LaSalle India, the senior living industry around the world is worth $25 billion, and as the population of senior citizens above the age of 60 grows to about 173 million by 2025, the industry will grow by leaps and bounds. Today, the current annual demand for senior homes is around 312,000, far outstripping the supply of about 20,000 to 30,000 available homes. The trend of building retirement communities started at the turn of the century in south Indian cities but has today moved up north too. By 2013, there were 30 retirement communities in the country and today there are over 80, with several more in the pipeline.
So why do so many seniors move to such communities? Based on our experiences and what I saw during my time in the community my parents currently live in, it is mainly because seniors find it hard to manage and maintain their own homes. The daily housework, looking after each other’s health, the daily shopping and medications all take a toll on them. Also, because of rising crime rates against seniors living alone makes it hard for their children who worry for their parents. Living alone, especially during the pandemic and lockdowns meant they were isolated and could not even talk to others face-to-face. Even though in our Mumbai home, we had very good neighbours, because everyone was concerned about their health and safety, there would be days when except to open the door for the milkman and helper, my mother would not see our neighbours. During lockdowns, it was especially hard for my sister and me to ensure our parents had access to daily necessities as they constituted the vulnerable group and so were not encouraged to go out. We had to depend on friends and agencies who would help. Luckily, my parents have embraced online shopping, so they could order pretty much everything online and what could not be delivered was brought by our domestic helper.
Living in a retirement community has other advantages, especially the assistance needed can be personalised. In the community my parents live in, many seniors have homes in the city and come to the community a few weeks at a time and then go back to their homes. This way, they get the best of both worlds. Those who are active and fit can continue to live independently, cooking their food and doing their shopping. For those who don’t want to cook, there is community dining, with a dining hall where you can have your meals or if you are not very mobile, you can order the food to be delivered to your own home. My parents do a hybrid version. They cook some meals and have the others delivered. My mother has the time to take regular walks which were difficult previously, also because we lived on the third floor of a walkup apartment and my father found it hard to walk up the stairs. Here, with the lift, they can manage multiple walks in a day. There is also a physiotherapist who comes in daily and in addition to the treatment they provide as part of the services of the community, you can also hire them to work with patients with ailments and they provide customised care. My father uses a physiotherapist who comes daily to provide care and we can see a significant improvement in his health.
Of course, all this costs money and in addition to the maintenance we pay to the community, we have to pay for all meals taken, the domestic helper and the physiotherapist as well as any medical treatments done. Also, if the community is made up of seniors entirely, the lack of interaction with people of all ages can be tiring, so many developers integrate the senior community within a larger housing community, which is also true of where my parents now live in.
Another thing I noticed is that most senior communities are communal. And when I say communal, it means a large portion of the residents belong to a specific state, community or even region. This is both good and bad. Good because when there are people like you, the community then becomes an extension of your home, with food being cooked more or less like how you would make it, festivals being celebrated like how you do at home and communication freer with others because you know each other on a cultural level. And bad because it makes it very communal and does not allow you to interact with people from different communities and religions which is what makes living in a community so special.
I for one would love to explore living in such a community once we retire. Unfortunately, at this point, there is nothing like this available in Singapore, but I am not sure what the situation will be in the next few decades when we do retire. What would you do? Would you consider moving to a retirement community if you have the chance? I would love to hear your thoughts, please comment and let me know.