Old-Folks Homes à la Française: Quaintly French Senior Living

A new trend in retirement housing offers American-style amenities with classic French flavor in converted convents and restored countryside heritage sites.

Charente, France
Charente, France
Aude Seres

Once you've passed the great wall that surrounds the property, you catch sight of a 19th century structure set amidst a large expanse of parkland. Situated in the heart of the quaint, historic town of Tours in the Loire valley, the building was once part of the luxury historic hotels association Relais & Chateaux. Now, however, owners Jean and Sophie Bardet have chosen a new and different destiny for their building: an upmarket housing complex for the elderly.

This practice of converting charming old structures into private residences for seniors is gathering pace in France, under the watchful eye of course of Les architectes des bâtiments de France – the architect guardians of France's heritage buildings.

The work to convert the 19th century building took two years, and already, there are takers. Jacqueline, 87, has just made the move into a nearly 90-square-meter (969 sq-foot) apartment unit with a terrace. "I would rather choose this now consciously rather than end up in a retirement home after a bad fall," says the elegant mother of 11. The place is neither a typical old people's home nor a classic condominium. Instead, its concept is closer to that of a holiday village with a la carte services for France's well-to-do senior citizens.

With people living ever longer, the market for special housing for the elderly is exploding. And as informed consumers, their demands have become increasingly exacting. Property developers are riding this wave, filling the gap in the market by supplying what they think these sophisticated consumers are looking for.

And if they are willing and able to pay for it, France's golden-years crowd can now move into places steeped with history, with added services specially adapted for their needs and fancies: four-star restaurants, fitness centers, swimming pools, hairdressers and more. The basic rent of a 50-square-meter (538 sq foot) apartment costs between 700 and 800 euros per month. Residents tend to shell out an additional 400 to 900 euros of monthly costs for different levels of services with names like "club" or "wellbeing," all of which can take the monthly expense of such places up to 2,000 euros.

And although the occupants of this kind of residential accommodation have an average age of 80, the fee does not include any kind of medical service: you are essentially ‘at home" and often a long way off from any suitable medical facilities.

Set in a park of just over six acres, the complex was converted into 114 apartments with an architectural solution that encased the historical structure with a surrounding of brand new modern buildings. "It does take some time to get used to, but I think this new setting is actually very pleasant to live in," another resident says.

There is an adjoining hotel that also caters to the over-70 crowd. "It's a bit like Club Med for seniors," observes Frederic Walther, the managing director of Domitys, the company behind the scheme in Tours that provides this new generation of residences for the elderly. "This type of client is a big consumer and eager to enjoy additional services," he adds.

Those promoting these senior ‘villages' defend the fact they have borrowed generously from the American model, which hinges on the central idea of collective living within individual apartments, state-of-the-art security and an array of services on offer. In the United States, this form of luxury residence has flourished, particularly in Florida, which enjoys a reputation as an elderly wonderland, teeming with swimming pools and golf courses.

Wealthy ghettos for American senior citizens, these mini-paradises allow the old to serenely live their latter days in comfort. And now, the concept is beginning to take hold in France. And yet, when it comes to the Gallic version of living this dream, France's wealthy pensioners also have a taste for atmospheric and historic settings, which often proves a challenge for the developers. In the southwest of France, in the town of Toulouse, another of these apartment blocks enjoys the romantic 17th century surroundings of a former hotel, Le Mazuyer, once the site of an order of cloistered nuns, the Visitandines.

"Because they are often located right in the center of town, these historic buildings are particularly suitable location-wise for conversion into seniors' accommodation," explains François Georges, managing director of company called Les Jardins d'Arcadie, which currently working on several such projects. One of the facilities overlooks the Palace of Versailles. "These people want to escape the solitude of their lives, while enjoying customized services and a security-conscious environment."

And given the paucity of suitable sites for development in town centers, companies offering this new concept have also begun searching out former clinics and church properties to transform. In Nantes, Les Jardins d'Arcadie has just bought a former convent, the Convent of the Visitation, which it intends to transform into a senior utopia. Situated in the city center, close to the Saint-Pierre cathedral and the town's botanical gardens, it is a vast 17th century building with a cloister, garden and great dining hall. The site will be converted into 90 small apartments. The architectural task be no small feat. In fact some say these sites often become nightmares for the architects, who must reconcile the need to adapt the site for its elderly residents – and the invariable installation of countless mobility ramps and elevators –with the heritage imperatives of these conversion projects.

In Colmar, in North-eastern France, one of these former clinics, housed in a building dating back to the 17th century, is set for the same fate. Well known to the people of the Vosges region, the developers have promised to keep the building's deconsecrated chapel just as it is, so it can still host cultural events for all.

If these types of luxury residence seem set to take the senior market by storm, they also spark controversy. In particular, those who run retirement homes with specialized medical facilities are warning against this new solution to an ‘old" problem. "While we are subjected to countless constraints and rules in order to operate legally, to manage this type of accommodation as they do, they barely need to be more than a property management company," points out Florence Arnaiz-Maumé, the general delegate of Synerpa, the national union for private establishments and residences for the elderly. "Maintaining people who are no longer independent in individual apartments can pose problems."

But for those who have a taste for classic French surroundings – and who can afford it – this new take on elderly accommodation may be just the answer to their prayers.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Michael Clarke

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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