Not so long ago, retirement homes were based on hospitals, and dreary places they were. Now, an elderly generation made rich by the property boom is buying into complexes modelled on luxury holiday resorts, complete with fitness centres, spas, cafés and restaurants.
The latest "assisted living" developments offer the same lifestyle that many elderly people expect when they jet off for to a resort in the sun. Assisted-living complexes still make sure that help and care services are available at the press of a button, and usually there's a nursing home discreetly tucked away on-site too. But residents at these complexes own their own homes, giving them financial security and maintaining an appreciating asset to pass on to their children.
The Richmond Painswick is one such development. Located in the Cotswolds, it does not look like a retirement complex, with its traditionally styled buildings hewn from the local stone. Inside, the decor is bright and contemporary. The restaurant is as comfortable as that of most up-market country clubs. It's a world away from the drab institutions so feared by the elderly. There's a sauna, steam room, spa and pool, and a fully equipped gym.
The development includes "independent living apartments" designed for the active retired, as well as serviced apartments for people who need help with bathing and dressing. Finally, there are bedrooms with 24-hour care for the seriously ill.
The independent-living apartments are designed for people who no longer need bedrooms for an entire family but want enough space for their treasured possessions, according to Keith Cockell, manager director of Richmond Villages. "People can sell their family house and get a fabulous flat with room to put all their furniture and possessions in – all you have to throw away is the stuff in the spare bedroom."
Selling the family home will often release a substantial sum that can be used to top up a pension and indulge in the social life in the development, or be set aside to fund care later on, adds Cockell. Prices at Richmond Village complexes are between £150,000 and £250,000 for two bedrooms.
Owners in the independent-living part of the development rarely have to move from their apartments into the close-care facility, says Cockell, because care can be extended to the apartments easily and at low cost.
Cockell is also looking at a problem that he says is ignored in Britain: elderly people who are caring for even more elderly partners.
"There are many couples where one is the carer, struggling to look after their partner when they find it difficult to cope themselves," he says. "Their lives can be totally wrecked. We can look after the partner while they live in the suite, or one is in the nursing home and the other lives in their apartment close by. This is a totally untapped market."
The retirement-village concept is set to move upscale, with much bigger developments planned, says Iain Locke, director of the healthcare division of Savills.
"Most of the high-quality operators are looking for land for more complexes," he says. "Most UK assisted-living complexes are about six to 10 acres, but in the US, they are much bigger, on sites of several hundred acres and usually next to a golf course."
The size of these developments enables them to provide more outdoor activities as well as allowing them to hide the off-putting nursing home away in a corner of the development.
Richmond Villages is building a new development in the South-west that will be much larger than its current offerings. "We have a village in the pipeline in Torbay on a 60-acre site overlooking the sea, which will be a 'destination resort' village with 250 residents," says Cockell. "It will have all the features of a luxury hotel and a really first-class spa that we think would do Champneys proud."
The point is to make retirement a rewarding and joyous part of life, rather than drudgery. "Our villages are lighthearted, fun places to live," Cockell says. "People are beginning to see that there is a really great and positive alternative."