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