The New Nirvana

The average age of tenants at Montréal’s Olympic Village is 73, which makes it a NORC.

NORC stands for Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, in the parlance of the company that recently purchased the distinctive twin pyramids in the city’s east-end. The goal? To develop the complex into a model retirement community.

Metro Capital Group of Toronto outbid three competitors for the buildings plus 15 hectares of surrounding landscaped grounds for $62.5 million. Metro says the site has exciting possibilities because its size will allow for ongoing expansion of facilities to meet tenants’ changing needs.

Flanked by the Olympic Stadium and the Montréal Botanical Gardens, the Olympic Village was erected to house athletes at the 1976 Summer Games and subsequently converted the real estate into apartments owned by the Québec government. Over the years, the 980 residential units have increasingly been rented by seniors attracted by the security and amenities, including a community clinic, a seniors’ club, several restaurants, a travel agency, and a well-stocked variety store.

Metro, a leading Ontario operator of multi-family apartment communities, and Devoncare, a Metroubsidiary that operates retirement residences, want to take it much farther than that. With $45 million earmarked to develop the site, company officials plan many additional services so that residents can stay put as they age.

For example, tenants could be assisted with everything from housekeeping and laundry to personal care, a variety of meal packages and organized activities. There could be units for physically impaired seniors and guest accommodation for villagers’ family and friends.

Because the site also comes with 22,500 square metres of commercial space, a professionally staffed retirement home could be built for those who require some form of assistance in their daily living needs. And there is plenty of land on which to build other facilities, such as a nursing home. “All those things, in other words, that would attract the full continuum and proper care for older people as they age in place,” says Devoncare spokesman Rick Winchell. “It’s limited only by the imagination and the demands of the population.”

All this remains very much in the early planning stages. Winchell says Devoncare would consult extensively with the tenant population to determine their needs. The company has set a self-imposed deadline of October to come up with a master plan.

If it comes to pass, it will be a novelty in Québec. Though there are hundreds of seniors’ residences across the province, Québec has no American or Ontario-style self-contained retirement communities.

“I’ve been saying for years that they exist everywhere else, so why not here?” says Claude Paré, president of Centre Visavie, a seniors’ placement consulting centre in Montréal. “Maybe it’s the political situation. Maybe there’s a language barrier. And maybe retirement-community developers were so busy in their own territory they haven’t looked at their neighbors.”

But that’s starting to change, as evidenced by Metro’s investment. Paré, for one, thinks the retirement housing market in Québec is on the cusp of major growth. He recalls that a developer attempted in the late 1980s to build a retirement village in Lavaltrie, about an hour northeast of Montréal. In the end, only a few houses went up, and the promised community centre never materialized. Paré says the timing and location were wrong and the necessary capital lacking. “But now I think the timing is excellent. The closer we get to the year 2000, the more people realize there is an explosive growth in an aging market.”

Martine Langlois, executive director of the Fédération de l’âge d’or du Québec (FADOQ, the provincial seniors’ association), said that Québec seniors are traditionally less inclined than Americans or Ontarians to move away from their home towns; when they do, it’s usually because they need to be closer to medical services. This may be why Thetford Mines failed a few years back to transform itself into the Elliot Lake of Québec. The one-time “Asbestos Capital,” mid-way between Sherbrooke and Québec City, found itself with many empty houses after the mines shut down. It also has a hospital, community centre, outdoor recreation, numerous local retirees and a low crime rate. But its marketing campaign to attract retirees from elsewhere was unsuccessful, although city officials say they will likely try again as the population continues to age.

Fifty-something city dwellers who are retiring early or simply planning ahead are a different breed. Many are buying homes in the country, particularly in the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships near Montréal and in the Beauport region near Québec City. “In the Laurentians, for example, they have the mountains and the lakes, they can go cycling or golfing, there’s a wide variety of recreation, and yet they’re only a couple of hours from Montréal,” Langlois says. “The kids are more mobile than in the past, they’ve left home, and the parents don’t see why they shouldn’t do their own thing. But it takes a certain amount of money.”

Such active couples are among the target market Tremblant’s real-estate arm would like to attract. Owner Intrawest, a resort developer, has been plowing millions into a massive redevelopment of the all-seasons resort in the Laurentians, including construction of condominiums and homes around the mountain and new golf course. It takes a certain amount of money – indeed, the average purchase price ranges from $167,698 for a condominium to $1 million for a custom-designed home perched on the edge of the golf course.

Montréal, for its part, is peppered with privately operated high-rise residence-apartments for seniors. Seniors’ placement consultant Thelma Cadieux reckons she has more than 500 resources, and that’s probably only about half the total number on Montréal Island. They run the range from basic to upscale. Typically, a full-service residence offers apartment kitchenettes in addition to a restaurant downstairs, plus cleaning services, laundry, organized activities and outings, hairdressing, banking and medical surveillance. Says Cadieux: “There’s so much for them to do that the children always say, ‘I can never get hold of my mother or father.’ I tell them to put in answering machines.”

On average, it costs between $1,200 and $1,800 a month to live in a residence, meals inclusive. A chart in a recent edition of Senior Times in Montréal indicated that studio apartments run from $800 to $1,300, one-bedrooms from $900 to $1,700 and two-bedrooms from $1,300 to $2,200 monthly.

Cadieux says waiting lists aren’t lengthy and she can usually get seniors into residences quickly. What’s of more concern to her is matching up an individual to the right residence. In multicultural Montréal, some residences have mainly Jewish tenants, others are filled with francophone Catholics, while still others are anglophone and multi-denominational. “I tell families, you can’t put someone who’s been kosher all her life into the wrong residence,” Cadieux said. “You’ll just have to move her, and if you have to move your mother three times, you’re going to be frustrated, but she’ll be traumatized.”

Rural Québec towns usually have one or two small private seniors’ residences. As well, about half the provincial government’s 60,000 low-rent housing units across Québec are for seniors. Rules are strict as to applicants’ monthly income and waiting lists range from a few months to a few years.