Putting the ‘gold’ in golden years: Maxime Camerlain, Chartwell

Chartwell’s Maxime Camerlain paints a picture of seniors housing—and it’s a lot more colourful than it used to be
Thursday, November 3, 2016
By Erin Ruddy

In the not too distant past, aging Canadians faced a grim decision over where to live out their so-called ‘golden years.’ They could lean on younger family members for support, thus allowing them to remain independent for as long as possible in the comfort of a familiar space, or they could settle into a nursing home, where reliable paid help was always on hand but the ambiance was more akin to a Long Term Care home.

In 2016 the options are far less stark. Baby boomers today—a group known to be collectively healthier and more active than past generations—are choosing to live out their complete lives on their own terms. Looking for a quaint country club vibe? Not a problem. Prefer a cool, urban setting close to all the amenities of downtown? Nowadays you’re apt to find that too. And regardless of the location, you can rest assured knowing you’ll be surrounded by a supportive, engaging community with programs and services structured to meet your every need, all within the luscious confines of property akin to an upscale holiday resort.

Sound too good to be true? Not according to Maxime Camerlain, Chartwell’s VP of Marketing. “We consider to have a dozen larger competitors in various markets but there is actually quite a larger number of smaller operators – Chartwell being the largest owner and operator in the country”, he said.

“I learned a long time ago that if you didn’t build it for them, the baby boomers would just build it themselves,” he quips. “As an industry, we’ve been around for about 25 -30  years, but in the last few years things have really begun to change. We’ve discovered that these baby boomers—many of whom took care of their own aging parents—have a clearer set of expectations of what retirement is going to be for them. And they don’t all want the same things. We have to give them more variety in order to appease the demands.”

Camerlain points to the Canadian landscape today and notes that retirement communities offer the most complete buildings of any other asset class in real estate. “We put everything in there,” he says. ”Pools, gyms, hair salons, lounges. So now we are at that point where even though amenities are still important—what is becoming even more important is the location of the building. When you think about it, that’s the basis for everything in real estate. Location, location, location.”

The old perception of a retirement home as somewhere off in the secluded countryside next to a quiet lake, is changing. The reason, says Camerlain, is that many aging Canadians don’t want that element of seclusion. “Most have spent their entire lives in an urban or sub-urban settings surrounded by restaurants and theatres,” he says. “Why would they want to suddenly give that up and head for the hills?”

Bustling neighbourhoods where still-active residents can freely roam are the hot commodity of the day. So much so that if Chartwell had its pick of development sites anywhere in Canada, nine times out of ten it would be in an amenities-rich neighbourhood. The phrase Camerlain uses for this is “externalizing the experience.” As an example, he points to Chartwell’s newest project in downtown Toronto, a 12-storey, 332-suite residence called The Sumach by Chartwell. A new partnership between Chartwell, The Daniels Corporation, Welltower and the building will provide retired occupants with a maintenance-free adult lifestyle set among Regent Park’s diverse range of dining options, arts and entertainment venues, and health and fitness centres. And though each suite will offer generous, private living spaces equipped with full kitchens, the residence will also include 82 underground parking spaces, 100 bike racks, a pet spa, close to 5,500 square feet of retail spaces, an outdoor terrace and a BBQ area for entertaining.

“At the Sumach, we are putting our residents in a property where they will feel safe and secure surrounded by people just like them, but with access to a great neighbourhood,” says Camerlain. “In that sense the neighbourhood itself becomes the ultimate amenity.”

Sharing space

Camerlain, who got his start in real estate in the student housing sector, draws the analogy of the student residence, in which a group of similar-aged individuals are all living together under a single roof. Keg parties and all-night study sessions aside, there are many similarities.

“The whole experience of living with people your own age has a lot of value,” he points out. “It brings a feeling of safety and security. There are common interests, common needs, but that said, not everyone is going to want the same things. One might prefer to stay on the property, another to take in the surroundings of the neighbourhood. But we know that our properties that often have the most success are the ones in an area buzzing with activity.  The biggest misconception about our industry that it’s boring and nothing happens. Actually it’s hard to keep up.”

Another misconception, Camerlain points out, is that retirement residences feel like hotels—clean and sterile, lacking in personality. “We strive for that blend of resort and home,” he says. “We found that you don’t want to fall into the trap of making a property seem too much like a hotel, because nobody wants to live in a hotel every day of the year. We also strive to give residents variety. For example, we are starting to build two or three different dining rooms with different menu options so that residents aren’t always eating at the same table. These are the little things that elevate the experience, yet still provide that feeling of home.”

Variety: the spice of life

In its thirteen year history, Chartwell has built, expanded and acquired properties across four provinces—Quebec, Alberta, Ontario, and B.C.—and has a portfolio of 186 retirement residences with eight more in development. With such a vast portfolio and a national brand to uphold, you’d think the design and service offerings within each building would be relatively consistent. But not so, says Camerlain.

“This company was built by the combination of four portfolios,” he explains. “So right from the beginning we started off with a very diverse offering of homes. Very small for us would be 40 to 50 suites per building. Typically these smaller properties are exclusively independent with some support. Now we have a number of larger buildings, as well, but no two are exactly alike. Each building has its own atmosphere, history and décor. And they evolve. Maybe twenty years ago, a building was fully independent, but the clientele has since needed more care. So now that building has become more care-driven.”

Camerlain says that despite the variation, overall Chartwell is moving in the direction of buildings with a wider mix of units. “Back in the day most of our homes had the same suites—small with no kitchen, or maybe a kitchenette. Now we’re finding people want more choice. If they want to be able to cook a meal they can.”

Aside from suite-style, the levels of care offered to residents varies from property to property as well. From independent living with minimal support to assisted living with customized services, Chartwell offers the gamut, and even has “complete campuses of care” where every option is available under one roof. And for those residents suffering from memory loss, designated wings or floors called “Memory Living” exist.

“Residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s require a different level of care,” says Camerlain. “Often times these people are quite physically fit. There are programs specifically for them, and support for their families. They require a safe, secure area and even a separate outdoor space.”

Staff and residents

Unlike your average apartment building, a retirement residence requires a huge staff with a special blend of skills to manage daily, on-site operations. “It’s a very diverse mix of people. You have a general manager, you have a food services manager, you have a care and wellness manager, you have a lifestyle and activities manager, and so on, much like a resort,” Camerlain says. “Along with the unique skillsets that go with each position, you also need people management, business acumen, and a general appreciation of what it takes to deal with seniors and their families. You have to have that natural empathy—respect for the evolution of life. You have to like this work, and if you do, you are never going to want to do anything else.”

And while it takes a great mix of staff to run a retirement residence, it also takes a mix of residents to fill one.  But Camerlain says you don’t necessarily have to be wealthy to find your perfect housing solution.  “People often get intimidated by the monthly cost. But you have to keep in mind that, typically it includes things like utilities, meals and housekeeping,” he says. “There’s an exercise to be done that involves calculating your living expenses right now, even if your mortgage is paid out. The cost becomes less daunting when you factor in these things. Still, if you want to live in the top of the top, then yes, there is going to be a higher price tag associated with those offerings. But I would tell you that generally speaking, as a business, the question of how we are going to build good, affordable seniors housing for the future is one we are all asking.”

Economy of scale

Finding a model that addresses the affordability issue is something Quebec has been successful at, and Ontario is watching its neighbour closely. “In Quebec, the issue of affordability was addressed many years ago,” Camerlain points out. “Real estate developers discovered that there was a certain limit of rent that could be charged, and therefore the only way to achieve profit was through volume. Today you’ll find that the average retirement home in Quebec has about 325 to 350 units, whereas the traditional home in Ontario has about 125 to 150.”

What this means, of course, is that the larger the building, the lower the cost per unit. According to recent CMHC statistics, renting a unit in a Quebec home will cost the resident about $1,626 per month. In Ontario, the average rate per month is $3,499. The different is that, in Ontario that price will include things like meals and housekeeping.

“The Sumach in Regent Park was inspired by the Quebec model in terms of volume, but takes the best of the Ontario system too,” Camerlain says. “At 332 units, the rate range is a lot more affordable, yet it has all the amenities with meals being à –la-carte. It is a different style home though, because it’s being marketed as a new rental design concept. It is our jumping board into a segment of the business we think has a lot of potential.”

That segment is the highly vocal, physically fit 65- to 79-year-olds who don’t want to be confined to a traditional seniors residence. “Perhaps they have a winter spot in Florida and they just want a nice, maintenance-free dwelling for when they come home, one that’s right downtown and accessible,” Camerlain says. “Well the Sumach is just such a place. The only thing it doesn’t provide is care. In that respect, it is much like an independant apartment but with all the amenities of a resort.”

Camerlain concludes that, despite the variation—the ages and stages, the personalities and levels of care his industry is striving to accommodate—the one thing that everyone seems to want at the end of the day is a nice place to congregate and share a drink. “Don’t underestimate the power of a good Happy Hour,” he says.

Today’s top amenities:

  • Good, age-appropriate programming (i.e. aqua fitness, yoga, etc.)
  • Well-equipped fitness centres
  • Pet-friendly features, like a pet spa or a dog-walking service
  • Kids zones for visiting grandchildren (i.e. a games room)
  • A place to have a drink with friends for ‘Happy Hour’

What the future holds

A few industry experts share their visions for the future of retirement homes in North America:

  • Destination retirement communities, with people from across the country gravitating to these purpose-built, expansive communities where residents can age in place
  • More choices, including condominiums, townhouses, and bungalows, arranged in small and large settings to cater to increasing consumer expectation and market demands
  • Larger suites in retirement residences
  • More varied and lavish amenities and services (Example: home theatre in every suite)
  • Greater range of innovative programming, including opportunities for continuing education
  • Higher levels of health-care services supporting aging in place

Erin Ruddy is the editor of Canadian Apartment Magazine.

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