Forever Homes: ‘Do you exist or do you live?’ Ask someone at a retirement village
It is very true that much of our retirement happiness is directly and indirectly related to where we live.
And where we live is the million dollar question. Will we all go firm and stay in our own house until we are thrown into a box? Are we moving into a retirement village? Are we downsizing or moving in with the family? Are any of these options even possible?
Homed has visited many people in retirement villages over the past decade and has never heard anyone say he regretted the move. Obviously, it has to happen once in a while, but most people find their days to be busy and they prefer it. In short, they are happy.
A relatively new retirement village on the North Coast, Auckland, is Settlers Lifestyle Village. Two particularly poignant and unsolicited comments came out during an afternoon spent by Homed with about ten inhabitants: “Before I moved here, I existed. Now I live,” said one woman.
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And another resident: “If I hadn’t moved here, I would have already died. And he wasn’t talking about medical care – he was talking about the social benefit of always having something to look forward to that involved other people.
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But what’s really exciting about the village we visited is that it’s the people themselves who make it work and who provide the opportunities – they determine what they need, what they want and then organize it. They are not managed by the village; they manage themselves.
And, ultimately, it takes an 88-year-old woman to lead this village – although she denies it. Elaine Brewitt, who was 82 when she arrived with her husband in Settlers, was instrumental in setting up a wide range of activities organized by other residents.
She is very humble and points to all the helpers (21 at last count), but if she hadn’t organized herself these activities might never have happened.
“We came here after I broke my leg,” she says. “It got us thinking about the future. We had a two-story house and I suddenly thought, ‘what if I can’t drive? How will I walk to the store? There was no bus stop. We looked around (in the villages), and as soon as we entered here, we said: “That’s it”. We sold the house and moved – and I have to say it’s good to do that when you’re well enough to deal with the process and the downsizing.
“The feelings we felt leaving our home – our safety, our friends and our surroundings are, of course, felt by many. It was a very stressful time. It’s a bit like starting at a new school.
“We both have ‘stuff’ (medical issues), but everyone has ‘stuff’.”
That didn’t stop Elaine from looking around and seeing that not much was going on – and that was the start of it all. “I could see people sitting in their rooms – old people who weren’t mobile. They needed something to do, so we started the Sunday Mystery Tours, where they are taken, with their walkers, in a van somewhere different every week.
And it is other residents who drive and help the less mobile residents during the journey.
“Then we thought active people needed something to do,” says Elaine. “So we’ve set up Wednesday Wanderers – and go somewhere different every week.”
And there are other residents who offer to drive their own vehicle to take people to medical appointments. The team organizes speakers; there is a Sunday Games catch-up group, a men’s group, an over-90s group and residents who are part of a welcoming meet and greet group, which includes Jenny McKay. “It can be very intimidating (as a new resident) walking into happy hour and everyone is seated in a group. So we welcome newcomers and make introductions.
“We help with social welfare in every way we can, including being available to keep people company and chat in their apartment,” says Elaine. “Or give time off to someone who takes care of a partner.”
Elaine has also organized, with help, students from nearby high schools who come to help residents with computer problems – usually questions about phones and laptops. Students get credit for their studies, and residents can gain valuable knowledge, and both parties enjoy the social interaction.
“You can have company here all the time, if that’s what you like. You never have to be alone,” says Doreen Sinkinson, who helps the over 90s. “We try to encourage residents to keep moving – to exercise, to go to the pool, the spa and the gym.”
Precious McKenzie (former Olympic weightlifter) is a resident who takes exercise classes. “He’s been in demand lately,” Doreen says.
We chatted with Precious during lockdown last year about his favorite things to do: “Lots of socializing and happy hours,” he said. “There is even a meeting for men who have lost their wives. They bring us together for a meeting once a week. Nobody is isolated – you live longer if you are not alone.
Another helper, Lyn Bishop, tells us about her typical (exhausting) Wednesday: “I do gym, then tai chi, then water aerobics. And then a game of cards with friends in the afternoon, and then it’s happy hour, when I’m often behind the bar working as a bartender.
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On our way out we pass people playing croquet on a large green, and back into the main drawing room where the small stage is set up as a beautiful shrine to Queen Elizabeth – there is a huge projected image of the Queen and her corgis.
Memories are everything, of course, and residents here are busy making new ones and making new friends – every day. And they make a special mention of the head receptionist Glenda who, like the residents, “always goes the extra mile”.
Well-being, for these seniors, is about staying active, but it’s also about friendship.