Ernie Hee & Veronica Da Conceicao, OPAL by Element
On inter-generational living, adopting technology that protects well-being, and the importance of passion
In our Inspiring Leaders Series, we interview visionaries driven by a passion for excellence that’s manifest in Canada’s most innovative retirement communities.
Thought leadership in action: OPAL by Element
"We're embracing aging, and [we] actually built OPAL [around] the desire to maintain family, and be close to one another, [to] maintain normalcy, life... That's why we have intergenerational living, the very first one that was ever built. We are able to have residents [live in] their own circumstances, having dependent children live with them, and to continue to do so."
OPAL by Element brings inter-generational living to Vancouver, the first of its kind in Canada. Below, executive vice president, Ernie Hee, and OPAL’s general manager, Veronica Da Conceicao share their thoughts on how senior living is rapidly evolving and how OPAL exemplifies many of those changes.
What’s the biggest trend in the retirement industry in recent years? [0:50]
Ernie Hee: [What] became even more apparent over the last 14 months or 16 months was the emergence of safety and well-being. We, in our home, we had one of the first digital thermometer cameras coming into OPAL. So, everybody’s temperature was taken as you walk in. We bought an air purification system. We already knew, before it was public, that air purification was the key. It wasn't about services, it was about the transmission of COVID through the air. So we worked very hard. We worked with a local Vancouver company and we bought six machines that clear the air.
Wearables, which are technology dealing with the monitoring of your own health is another trend that we're seeing a great deal of. So, everybody now can put their finger in a fingerstick, and they can tell their oxygen level. They can check their pulse by themselves. So, that’s brand new, and I think it's going to expand. And then the whole technology with respect to virtual medicine, which is definitely coming. I think our residents are seeing that it's not always necessary to go visit the doctor.
[2:03] I think we're also going to see a large increase in community engagement. We saw that certainly in B.C. through our all of our members [in the British Columbia Seniors Living Association – ed.]. We have 160 sites in our association, and the community engagement was amazing. What I mean by that [is] the schoolchildren, the community at large, assisting the loneliness [of seniors] that occurred when we were in the middle of the pandemic. So, we're going to see that continue. I think that the amount of satisfaction both ways was so great... the feeling of satisfaction of the seniors, the loneliness which was hopefully solved and the other way around, the kids and the other people who are the ones doing it were very happy with it. I see that continuing.
It's all about passion, passion for the industry, passion for our staff. It's passion for our staff wanting to care for people. So, we take great pains in making sure we qualified people who are passionate about the industry. I sit on the BC Seniors Living Association and one of the topics we always talk about... is the importance of our staff, right from the general manager right down to the care aide helping our seniors.
What has your company done well [2:57]
Veronica Da Conceicao: With OPAL, we see that we are not segregating seniors by any means. As a matter of fact, we're embracing aging, and [we] actually built OPAL [around] the desire to maintain family, and be close to one another, [to] maintain normalcy, life. Having family together means that you kind of live longer, and most retirement communities … will have an age restriction, which doesn't really allow families to live together. In many circumstances, whether or not it's a retirement community, you can walk into a normal condo or a detached home to find [multiple] generations living together. You may have a married couple, you might have grandma and grandpa living [there], and then they all raise their grandchildren together. When OPAL built this place, we had that in mind. That's why we have intergenerational living, the very first one that was ever built. We are able to have residents [live in] their own circumstances, having dependent children live with them, and to continue to do so.
[4:20] We also decided to embrace [having] children [around], where it's a big part of our residents’ lives, to build a space designed for the little ones, where they can go and play [for example] make believe, or the older grandchildren [can] play ping pong or a game of pool. Now, visiting grandma and grandpa is not boring, right? It's not an obligation, but it's fun, and [they're] even [included in] our recreational activities. The residents... have a choice, and to be able to have normalcy. They don't feel like they're going into a seniors retirement community, but more like they're on vacation and they're able to bring everybody with them. [However], instead of vacation, it’s actually their day to day, and that's their home.
Ernie [5:07]: If you go into our site, you'll see that we have a very large kids’ area. We want the kids to want to come to visit their grandparents, as opposed to when I was asked or forced to come to visit my grandparents. This becomes an enjoyable an experience. We want the seniors to be active. Like many of the homes that you'll see or know about, what we're trying to do is have active life for all of our residents.
Aside from intergenerational living, what else sets OPAL apart? [5:42]
Ernie: Maybe firstly, it's all about passion, passion for the industry, passion for our staff. It's passion for our staff wanting to care for people. So, we take great pains in making sure we qualified people who not just want a job, but are passionate about the industry. That's very important to us. And we talk about that a lot. I sit on the BC Seniors Living Association and one of the topics we always talk about [with] the various owners and operators of these various high-end private-pay homes is the importance of our staff, right from the general manager right down to the care aide helping our seniors.
[In amenities and services] we went over the top on everything, all of our appliances, to our countertops, to our walls, to everything we've done is over the top. People move in, and have said to us, this is like a five star resort. That's their words, not mine. So that sets us apart. Our dining does for sure. Our location: I mean, it's like any piece of real estate … We are near [public transit]. You can walk from a Skytrain station. We're on two major arteries. We're near Queen Elizabeth Park and Hillcrest Park. So, we have huge parks [plus] Skytrain, so people can commute very easily.
How will the industry change and evolve in the coming years? [7:08]
Ernie: I believe there'll be a trend of higher end private pay. Baby boomers are now right through the system. I'm a boomer and generally those boomers have a lot of capital and money. The real estate market allows them to sell and have a lot of capital. So, you're going to see, I think, more higher end private pay. That's one trend for sure.
Technology is going to drive [everything]. [In every] new build we're starting to see higher technology. From air purification to optical cable, in [everything] we're doing, technology will drive every building. Every building has to have [the latest technology], because you're not going to be able to compete in the marketplace without it.
You're going to start to see some consolidation in the industry, which normally happens, which is: the REITs will get bigger, and the smaller single operators will likely sell.
Veronica [8:14]: I see buildings in the future that will basically [be] its own little city. Where there [are] stores, there [are] doctors, there's everything medical, massage therapists, dentists that are nearby, and easy to access. That also allows our residents to embrace independence. OPAL is all about enhancing one's lifestyle, but at the same time fostering independence. I think the industry needs to understand that [need]. What can we do, as a whole, to help these residents live as long as possible and to maximize their life as long as possible?
We want the kids to want to come to visit their grandparents, as opposed to when I was asked or forced to come to visit my grandparents. This becomes an enjoyable an experience. We want the seniors to be active.
What inspired your personal passion for this industry? [9:00]
Ernie: Three quarters of my career was spent doing commercial real estate, and that's what brought me into the seniors living industry. I represented a client who was buying, selling and developing senior living facilities or homes. I also had, at that point in time, two [aging] parents. One is now passed, but one’s still living. So, I got to live the process, of how to choose a retirement home, what to look for, what it looks like.
Veronica [9:37]: It doesn't feel like work to me at all. Being here and doing this for the last 30 years. I feel so grateful to be amongst all these residents that have so much history to share. That inspires me to do better. Any hardships that I have, I can overcome them. It’s just the way you see challenges and make into a positive.
These residents, I'm telling you, they have so much history and so [many] life lessons. They can sit here and just talk to you and tell you about it. That's what really inspires me to keep going [in] this industry, [to] fight for the industry. Age is only a number.
Inside OPAL, grandparents share the building with their own children and grandchildren. That’s just one remarkable aspect of this revolutionary community on Vancouver's west side. Learn all about OPAL by Element.