22 Feb 2012
[Note the date.]
Few housing options for the old in S'pore, says senior-living consultant
By Radha Basu
LAST Friday's Budget  bestowed a hamper full of goodies on older Singaporeans.
Families caring for the frail elderly are in for a windfall, with more state subsidies for care in community hospitals, nursing homes and even at home. For the first time, even the richest can get state subsidies for stays in community hospitals.
In this 'season of plenty', it may seem politically incorrect to talk about some seniors who feel short-changed about retirement options.
But international senior-living consultant Tan Kee Hian, 57, believes this is as good a time as any to discuss the relative shortage of living choices for Singapore's growing group of more affluent, older folk.
He says many seniors in the top fifth to 20th percentile of the income scale would gladly part with their savings to live in retirement villages (RVs) which offer professional care and support services such as an on-site round-the-clock emergency response system.
While such communities are common in most developed countries, there are none in space-starved Singapore. Both the public and policymakers seem to prefer 'ageing in place' - where people live out their last years in the community rather than in institutions.
But Mr Tan says that while boosting community resources to enable the majority to age in place is a 'basic necessity' here, no one solution can fit the needs of all seniors.
'Ageing in place assumes that everyone has similar needs - and that's a very big assumption. Given the diversity of our First World society, we deserve more choices.'
The veteran management consultant is convinced there is a need and even a demand for Western-style retirement villages, and hopes to develop Singapore's first such project.
He says those who argue that there is absolutely no demand for retirement villages here are divorced from reality.
'If you repeat a myth often enough, it gets mistaken for a fact.'
Over the past two years, he has rigorously researched and written a proposal for a $70 million to $80 million retirement living project in Jalan Jurong Kechil, a site the Government has earmarked for the purpose.
All he needs is an investor who is willing to put in up to $25 million. The rest will be made up by bank loans and he is willing to put his cost calculations up for thorough scrutiny.
The Harvard Business School-trained expert says he has done his homework and pulls out a consultant's most handy tool: statistics.
A survey of 3,000 baby boomers, commissioned by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and released in 2009, showed that one in four would not mind living in a retirement village.
Significantly, that is far higher than the 12 per cent of older folk who actually live in such communities in countries like the United States.
There are nearly a million baby boomers here, born between 1947 and 1964. The first cohort turns 65 this year, which Mr Tan sees as an 'inflection point' in this nation's history.
Singapore's population of those aged 65 and above is set to double to 600,000 over the next decade and triple to nearly one million by 2030 - that's a faster rate of ageing than in virtually every other nation in the world.
He says some demographic micro-trends have reinforced the need for RVs.
- The number of older folk here who live alone or with their elderly spouse doubled to nearly 100,000 between 2000 and 2010.
- The number of those who have mobility problems and are 'semi-ambulant' has also doubled to around 36,000.
- The exploding numbers of these two groups - which have traditionally formed the core client base of retirement communities overseas - have far outstripped the overall growth in the senior population, which increased by around 50 per cent to 344,000 over the past decade.
Although they are in relatively good health, they may end up living in expensive nursing homes simply because they are immobile.
'Most such patients overseas would be living in retirement communities, saving their health-care institutions taxpayer dollars.'
Mr Tan, who returned to Asia in 2006 to be near his ageing parents after 35 years in Europe and the US, points out that he is often asked why he wants to 'break up families and hurt inter-generational ties' by advocating RVs.
'Just look at the statistics,' he says. 'The number of older folks who want to live by themselves may well explode. And as things stand now, many may not be getting the services they need.'
Indeed, growing groups of seniors either do not have children or do not want to depend on them as they age. Many - like Mr Tan himself - have children who live and work overseas.
Small wonder then that, according to the baby boomers survey, nearly 75 per cent of all respondents - and 85 per cent of university graduates - said they wanted to live on their own during their golden years.
About a third of those aged 65 and above already do so now.
But even if the demand is there, will older people have enough savings to pay for such resources?
Mr Tan reckons they will. Singapore, after all, has the highest proportion of millionaires in the world, with one in six households on that rich list. The number of those who earn above $10,000 a month has increased by nearly three-fold to 140,000 in a decade.
According to the MCYS survey, 12 per cent of baby boomers - or potentially 120,000 people - have gross monthly incomes of $7,500 and above.
Interestingly, the father of two acknowledges that it is not the Government but the private investors who should test the market by setting up Singapore's first retirement village.
To be fair, the Government has already taken the initiative to inject some variety in elder-living options, particularly those that cater to middle- to lower-income Singaporeans.
On Sunday, it launched Singapore's first group home for low-income elderly, where small groups of older folk who have little or no family support can share rental flats.
The Housing Board (HDB) has ramped up the supply of studio apartments for the elderly - and latest take-up rates are above 90 per cent.
Meanwhile, MCYS recently piloted 'seniors service centres' for residents in these apartments, providing information and referral services, organising social services and responding to emergencies.
But what these facilities do not cater to yet is more 'sophisticated needs', says the professional, who would love to live in such a facility one day.
For instance, there are no provisions for on-site nursing care.
There are older folk, for example, who may want care facilities within their condominiums - rather than in the neighbourhood. Some might not want to - or be able to - walk even 400m to the nearest polyclinic.
'A retirement village combines elder-friendly housing with care and community engagement services, together with professional management,' says Mr Tan. 'And no facility in Singapore currently provides all three.'
While senior activity centres might provide referral services, they certainly don't have a 'village manager' whose primary duty is to ensure the well-being of seniors living in his village.
So given that there seems to be a market demand, why has no developer bitten the bullet so far?
Mr Tan believes there is a 'fundamental mismatch' between what property developers traditionally do and what seniors want.
Developers want to sell houses, but seniors want to buy care; developers want to build, sell and move on; seniors want a provider who will stay and ensure a specified quality of care and services for the rest of their years - for many, many years.
'Developers love more of the same, but a retirement community is really a new market space,' says Mr Tan. 'We need a new breed of champion investors - and I hope we find them fast.'