The baby boomer generation may be regarded as arguably the luckiest generation to have ever lived. Born in the years after the second world war, they were the ideal age to enjoy the liberation of the sixties, benefited health-wise by the growth of the NHS, became homeowners during a period of massively rising house prices, travelled further afield due to low cost foreign holidays and cheap air fare, and in many cases finished work before final salary pensions had gone out of fashion.
Given the large number of people in this asset-rich generation, it is not surprising that more and more organisations are seeking to offer them new places to live in which to enjoy their later years. Yet relative to the scale of the opportunity and to what is already offered in some other countries, the UK lies behind the curve in terms of current perceptions about the senior living sector and the scale and nature of the current offering.
A recent trip to visit a number of senior living communities in the US provided first hand evidence of how Americans have more readily embraced the concept of dedicated places in which older people can live and enjoy life - due perhaps to a more open extrovert view of life, greater experience in earlier life of condominium living, or simply being less wedded to the "my home is my castle" perspective, stereotypical of Brits living on this side of the pond.
However whilst much learning can be gleaned from the US and other countries, delivering the right offering and marketing it effectively to the UK customer require both sensitivity and imagination.
We live in an "anti-ageing society". Everything seems geared towards holding back the years or ignoring mortality. Throw in the growth of individualism over the last few decades and you have a context hardly conducive to presenting and promoting a positive view of later life.
Yet a better, more enjoyable lifestyle has to be the core of the promise. Ironically the term 'downsizing' - arguably the first step in the journey along the assisted living / care continuum - suggests reducing and giving up something you previously had. But while you may be downsizing a property, you can be 'upsizing' your lifestyle: less time for chores, more time and money for enjoyment.
Whilst some operators have gone beyond the old-fashioned walk around video tours of empty apartments and facilities (filmed as though you are being taken in a wheelchair to see all the places in which you can be lonely and your offspring can feel guilty for leaving you), attempts at depicting lifestyle usually show older people being preternaturally happy on all occasions.
The reason for this is perhaps revealed by the example of hoardings for one UK retirement living scheme currently in construction, where every single photo of people shows them drinking. Not wishing to deny anyone a pre-lunch sherry or early evening G and T, surely there has to be more to retirement.
The promises of the property industry and the hotel and cruise sector - namely luxury ownership status and effortless leisure - are able to make up only part of the story. The depiction of geriatric hedonism may look superficially attractive, but the 'ennui' of continually having things done for you lurks close behind.
Research constantly shows that people are happiest when they have a sense of purpose. Older peoples' worst fear is to lose this - especially when they have experienced a lifetime of feeling and being useful. Successful operators in the senior living sector know this. They see themselves not just as providers - of support services and care as needed, but as enablers - helping facilitate residents to create, experience and most importantly appreciate a sense of purpose each day.
So whilst there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt from the hotel and leisure sector about delivering quality amenities and service, there may be much to learn also from the work of community development trusts. Set up specifically to do just what their name suggests, these trusts create the conditions in which members of a community can thrive by doing things for themselves. Critically, they view people as participants and co-creators not merely as passive recipients.
People living in a senior living community have skills to share with each other and indeed with the wider local community. For example, just as a local school may come to perform a concert or a play, so too can older people sit with schoolchildren to help with reading or writing.
Older people - health permitting - have wisdom and experience. Such attributes can only come with age. Those of them fortunate to have the net worth to choose to live in a senior living community will hopefully have the opportunity to experience not only some of the most enjoyable and stress-free but also most productive years of their lives.
That would be a story worth aiming for.
Author: Nick Jones