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Retirement Living

In Hamilton, developers are redesigning a 55-plus community for active living,giving it a vacation-like look and feel

Zest Communities is the developer behind The Village at St. Elizabeth Mills in Hamilton, a rare Canadian example in a global trend toward thematic retirement communities that appeal to active and often affluent buyers 55 and older.

The redesign of The Village at St. Elizabeth Mills, a retirement community in Hamilton, is one Canadian answer to an international trend to make retirement living seamless and fun.

By 2020, this 114-acre site along the Niagara Escarpment in Southern Ontario will look like a small European village, complete with alfresco dining along the streets and a weekend farmer's market.

Its youthful, active vibe is captured by the slogan on the retirement community's website: "Once you're over the hill, you start to pick up speed."

The point of this $800-million redevelopment is to infuse the property with an entertainment feel. To that end, Zest Communities, the developers of St. Elizabeth, enlisted the help of Forrec Ltd., a Canadian company known for its amusement park developments that include Canada's Wonderland, Germany's Legoland and Universal Studios Florida, to help give the retirement community an energetic appeal.

"The over-55 consumer is demanding this entertainment lifestyle," says Eric O'Rourke, Forrec's director of resorts. "They want something that moves away from the 'in a rocking chair, waiting out their golden years in a small one-bedroom apartment' style [of aging]. They want to program their life as if they were on vacation."

Forrec's design bolsters its concept as a theme park for active aging: Residents will be offered access to the health club, complete with indoor pool, spa and dance studio; a choice of five restaurants in the town square; an array of classes and activities, from golf to yoga, and an outdoor entertainment hub which would include staging for weekly entertainment.

St. Elizabeth's redesigned properties will range from ranch-style, open-concept "garden homes" to one- and two-bedroom condominiums in the Upper Mills Pond building to more assisted-living complexes for those with medical needs.

All properties are under a life lease, which allows the purchaser to live in the home for life or until they are no longer able to occupy the home at which time it is returned to developer. The property prices in the new condo buildings will average $400 a square foot. Current prices for a 1,000-square-foot garden home start at $380,000, according to Forrec.

"It provides more to the prospective buyer than the typical condo," explains Mr. O'Rourke. "You're getting a lot more for your money. You have the amenities, you have the activities and you're living in a pretty pristine, manicured environment."

Canada's coming a little late to the party of thematic retirement communities. The United States and even China – a country that once shunned the idea of caring for its aging population outside of the family home – have been onboard for years.

A 2016 study, Planning and Healthcare of Chinese HNWIs (high-net-worth individuals), by Chinese research institute Hurun, found that 28 per cent of the country's HNWIs regarded medium- to high-end elderly care homes as their postretirement living plan, an 87-per-cent jump compared with 2015.

Now, luxury is the theme of retirement living aimed at China's wealthy, aging population. Singapore-based luxury resort and hotel developer, Banyan Tree Holdings, announced last year that it would team up with Chinese real estate giant Vanke to develop a series of high-end retirement properties throughout Asia.

Forrec Ltd., a Canadian company known for its amusement park developments, was brought into the project to help give the retirement community an energetic appeal.

In the United States, niche market retirement communities have been around for decades.

Nalcrest, a retirement community founded in 1960 and located about an hour outside of Orlando in Polk County, is comprised of 500 apartments and was exclusively designed for the country's retired letter carriers.

Noho Senior Arts Colony in Los Angeles is the seventh retirement community of its kind in the state and its program developers believe these properties and their creative, niche amenities help its residents to combat loneliness and isolation.

"It's really about living with people who are like-minded. It breaks down barriers between people and there's this inherent promise of a community," says Tim Carpenter, chief executive officer and founder of EngAGE, a non-profit responsible for Noho's creative programming. "It's not simply age that people have in common."

Despite lagging in this commercial property segment, there is a large consumer base in Canada demanding these properties and many have disposable incomes to back their demands.

Since 2011, the number of persons aged 65 and older in Canada has jumped 20 per cent, totalling 5.9 million in 2016, outnumbering Canadians 14 and younger (5.8 million) for the first time, according to Statistics Canada.

What seniors want in retirement are properties that allow them "to downsize their lives, not downgrade them," says Pat Irwin, founder and president of Eldercare Canada.

"If we have to age, we want to do so invisibly," explains Ms. Irwin. "We want to feel good about our aging journey. This is the third chapter and it's going to be as good as it can be."

Canada's baby boomers are a unique population – they are living longer than their parents and, because of this, there is often a gap of years or decades between retirement and needing the 24-hour care of a nursing home. Retirement communities should be designed for this in-between stage, while also catering to the late stages of aging, Ms. Irwin says.

"If it's a proper [retirement] community, it has what's called a continuum of care, which allows people to move invisibly from being totally independent to needing medical care and no one will ever know because they remain [in the community] … It means I can continue to be me. I don't have to look and feel pathetic."

Ms. Irwin says she supports developments such as The Village at St. Elizabeth Mills because it allows baby boomers to live their retirement years in the active, energetic way they desire.

The more active, vacation-like feel of these communities encourages people to move there "earlier when they still have the social skills and the medical wellness to forge new relationships," Ms. Irwin adds.

St. Elizabeth residents will be offered an array amenities, including pools, restaurants in the town square and an outdoor entertainment hub which would include staging for weekly entertainment.

What's a life lease?

The popularity of life leases has grown significantly in Canada over the past decade, particularly in development projects geared toward the 55-plus population, as they combine aspects of home ownership and rental agreements.

– A life lease requires an initial lump sum paid out as a deposit followed by monthly payments intended to cover maintenance costs, management fees and other expenses – similar to condo fees.

– A distinct difference between life leases and the typical term lease or rental agreement is that there is no time limit on the lease. Life-lease purchasers buy the right to occupy the home for life (or until they can't/don't wish to occupy the home).

– Like homeowners, life-lease holders are responsible for costs associated with repairs to their home and paying the property taxes. However, they are not the sole owners of their properties. When the property is no longer occupied by the life-lease holder, it is returned to the developer to be resold as part of the community. "When you can't live in your property any more, usually because of health reasons, then you sell it back to the developer, not the open market, and you pocket the appreciation," says Pat Irwin, founder and president of Eldercare Canada. "In our experience there is always appreciation, these things don't go down in value."

– The first life-lease projects in Canada were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. There are more than 300 life-lease projects in operation, and more than one-third of these projects are located in Ontario, the ministry estimates.