Seniors Home 'Like a Cruise Ship'

The Vancouver Sun

Leading a tour of their new digs at a seniors' residence, Perry Couttie voices a refrain that at first might make you think this is another sad story about parents shoved into an old folks home and left in lonely isolation.

"We don't see that much of the kids," she says. But it's her next words that tell the real story.

"We are just too busy," she explains, chuckling in delight as she describes days that can start with workouts overseen by a fitness instructor, run to day trips or overnight jaunts, to rooftop barbeques and wrap up with a martini party in the bar
overlooking a restaurant that serves meals that Couttie -- a lover of fine food -- pronounces to be excellent and "very well presented."

In a twist on an old story, this time it's not the grown children but the octogenarian parents who are finding it difficult to make time to get together. Couttie, who turns 81 later this month, along with her 83-year-old husband Norman, could be called the poster children for the new aging movement in which seniors are discovering that needing a little help doesn't have to mean being helpless.

It's not that the Coutties are running marathons and escaping the ailments of aging. Perry, short for Pierrette, says her doctor has said that if it weren't for her regular exercise regime, her arthritis would have had her staggering along on two canes. Norman has early stage Parkinson's, although it doesn't stop him from walking halfway across town for his appointments at the hospital or practising his putting on the rooftop green of The O'Keefe, a retirement community where "leisure care" is far removed from the stereotypes of old age homes.

Faced with not being able to drive any more, the couple sold the White Rock retirement condo where they had lived for 20 years and relocated to a smaller apartment in The O'Keefe, a hotel-style seniors' community built at the old O'Keefe brewery site off West 12th Avenue in Vancouver.

It was a traumatic move. Norman had to give up his cherished golf club membership and Perry had to say goodbye to her fitness group friends who had become close by sharing fitness and fun for that 20 years. They had to pare down their furniture to fit the new place and give up the car.

But what sets the Coutties apart from others worried about an uncertain health future was their decision to be pro-active and plan ahead rather than waiting until a crisis forced them to move.

"When I first moved I thought I'd have a nervous breakdown," said Perry, no doubt unaware of the fact those words have repeated by many seniors and by those in the sandwich generation who help them go through a move from their longtime home. "But we wanted to have independence and we wanted the security.

"It was a $90 cab ride from White Rock to UBC where Norman gets the best of care for his Parkinson's. Here we are mobile."

All the services they need are in the neighborhood if not in the building, which houses a hairdresser, spa, library and in-house theatre and has activities that include painting courses, tango dancing and concerts. Pets are welcomed and as with many downtown condos, you're liable to run into residents heading out for a walk with their dogs.

The first thing you see as you walk in the front door into a foyer that resembles that of a somewhat luxurious hotel is the grand piano, surrounded by a sitting area and fireplace.

"It is very different from the others," Norman said of the residence they moved into last June. "It is like a cruise ship."

It's deliberately so and The O'Keefe ranks as one of the new millennium's senior residences that are a far cry from the lonely seniors' homes people think of when it comes time to find a place to move to.

But a tour of potential living spots can still turn up ones where you are greeted at the door with the overpowering smell of disinfectant mixed with urine, and the inmates -- once proud and productive members of society -- seem to be all but forgotten as the lives of younger generations carries on without them. It's that image that can have parents making their children promise never to shuffle them off to "one of those old folks homes."

Sam Zeitoun, general manager of The O'Keefe, has seen the reluctance and the fear of aging seniors contemplating a move and the guilt that can plague their families. "They wonder, 'can I stay in my house another month,'" said Zeitoun of the struggle for some seniors who find looking after their own home is becoming too much. "But among the people who move here, 80 per cent say they should have moved a few years ago.

"We have to change how people look at retirement living. People have to know there are options. The future of the industry is about being independent, but in a group without being being lonely."

While The O'Keefe has some assisted living, with the caregiving so discreet that the staff doesn't even wear uniforms, it is mostly for those able to look after their own personal needs. There is cleaning for their apartments and a minimum offering of 20 meals a month in the dining room. A 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen is about $4,200 a month and that includes the 20 meals, housekeeping, local telephone service, cable, heat and hydro. A smaller 500-square-foot one-bedroom can be had for $3,100 a month but the majority of the suites are the larger version.

While people often resist the move from their family home, in the right setting the social life, the exercise and activities and the comfort and security offered by the move can leave them better off. Zeitoun said the specialized health and fitness
training at The O'Keefe has proven beneficial for the balance and mobility of many residents. In one case, a resident who arrived with a walker was able to dispense with it and walk on his own.

The industry here is changing slowly but the changes, many in which public centres are picking up some of the best practices of leading edge private facilities, will leave today's aging baby boomers with more choices than their parents and grandparents may have had.

"What is the retirement community of the future?" muses Zeitoun. "It'll probably have a Starbucks, a music room, a computer games room -- people will be still wanting their espressos and lattes and their sports bars.

"In five years we'll probably be handing out MP3 players as gifts when people move in."

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