Room for improvement at 'retirement resort'

SHORTCOMINGS: Although The Hillford bills itself as a "retirement resort", it has no age restrictions on ownership or occupancy, and there is no guarantee that all the senior-friendly services being advertised now will come to pass.


    Jan 13, 2014

    Room for improvement at 'retirement resort'

    FIRST off the block after a 20-year debate on whether Singapore should have retirement communities, The Hillford in Upper Bukit Timah comes with plenty of promise.

    Developer World Class Land says the 281 units will have features such as emergency alarm systems in bedrooms linked to a 24-hour concierge-service counter. A full-time manager will coordinate activities like yoga or enrichment classes for residents.

    It promises a staggering list of over 30 recreational facilities and spaces, including swimming pools and a theatrette. Residents will also have access to clinics, restaurants and an eldercare centre.

    The development is likely to go on sale this weekend.

    But before opening their chequebooks, older buyers must consider carefully the details that may well be glossed over by the sharp-suited men and women hired to sell this golden retirement dream.

    For starters, although The Hillford bills itself as "Singapore's first retirement resort", it has no age restrictions on ownership or occupancy. In Europe, Australia and the United States, most such developments tend to be restricted to seniors above a certain age.

    Asked about this, the developer said it would give potential buyers "flexibility" and it was "only natural - given our Asian context - for families to want to stay together".

    Indeed, there are a small number of two-bedroom "dual key" units allowing parents to live with their adult children.

    Older folk like Ms Cecilia Ng, who is in her late 50s, said in that case, The Hillford should at least have had a provision for the majority of occupants to be seniors. "With no age bars, the very purpose of a retirement village is in danger of being compromised," said the retired school principal.

    Retirement housing is a niche development overseas, with only 10 to 15 per cent of the elderly interested in living in them. Residents tend to be single or widowed, or to not have or want their children to live with them.

    So it could be argued that the real reason there is no age restriction at The Hillford is to enable the developer to sell units as fast as possible and offset early sticking points: The price of the units and the development's 60-year lease. Other private properties here are freehold or have a 99-year lease.

    Current prices start at $388,000 for a one-bedroom 398 sq ft unit, which, given the limited lease period, is considered steep by many retirees.

    But young buyers, some of whom have been priced out of the condominium market after curbs on shoebox units, may find the price attractive, given its rental and investment potential and proximity to good schools.

    A second issue is that there is no guarantee that all the senior-friendly services being advertised now will come to pass.

    In the West and in Australia, retirement villages are often operated by aged-care companies. Traditionally, aged-care companies have care staff who work with residents long term to meet their evolving physical and emotional needs.

    Property developers, on the other hand, tend to build, sell and get out. So, as with any other condominium in Singapore, The Hillford's management will be handed over to a management corporation strata title (MCST) committee eventually. Comprising residents, it will have veto power over services and facilities. In theory, if most of the buyers are young, they could nix support services for the old.

    The developer said the property has been positioned for active, independent seniors aged 50 and above, and that a "substantial proportion" of those interested in buying came from this target segment. A spokesman said it "does not expect the MCST to make any drastic changes to the property".

    Still, there are no guarantees.

    Finally, the design of the showflats is not in sync with the safety needs of the frail. The marble living-room floor, for instance, is a slipping hazard.

    There are obstacles for wheelchair-users too, such as the small step to enter the bathroom, the lack of a shower bench, and no grab bars - although the latter can be added on request.

    As a journalist covering ageing issues, I have visited more than a dozen retirement communities in Europe and the US and spoken to those who run similar developments in Australia. The latest trends in retirement housing lean towards communities that cater not just to an older person when he is independent, but also as he becomes frail and infirm.

    But these shortcomings of The Hillford cannot take away from the fact that its developers have dared to go where none has gone before, despite the growing clamour for more retirement housing options.

    Imperfect it may be, but it is a start to fulfilling a demand first voiced nearly two decades ago.