Tony DiFruscio, St. Elizabeth Village
On the primacy of lifestyle, exceeding residents' expectations, and facilitating fun for empty nesters
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 at St. Elizabeth Village
"People come to us for lifestyle now. The bricks and mortars are a necessity [but] we've gotten to the point where we want to make this risk free, even to the point where... anything we build here has every upgrade built into it. [We] take those decisions away, make it easy."
As President of Zest, Tony DiFruscio has spearheaded some of the most important changes and innovations at St. Elizabeth Village in Hamilton. In the interview below, he emphasizes that retirement living isn’t about making do, it’s about deepening your enjoyment of life as you get older. He also discusses the palette that Village residents have to choose from when creating exactly the type of life they want to live.
What was your eureka moment this industry? [0:50]
We entered into this industry from the development industry. Once we had acquired this village, which is an extremely large facility and community [with] 558 garden homes, a thousand residents and growing … We discovered that, very rapidly, we were more in the hospitality business. [We] understood this wasn't just about providing houses or a housing form, this was more about lifestyle and community and providing … I call it the palette, for our residents to live out their retirement years or empty-nest years, in a vibrant and active lifestyle.
And they can get it all here within our community.
The activities, the social side of it [changes]. People have different needs. Our job is to listen to them, in terms of what customer experience they would like out of it... We facilitate it, and we continue to listen and grow with our residents as they become more active.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in retirement living in the last decade? [1:42]
Our residents originally looked for housing, you know, housing for retirement. And it was a place to live. The twist here is this is about a better place to live. This is not just about housing. This is about lifestyle. And the focus on [that] has really accelerated significantly. People come to us for lifestyle now.
The bricks and mortars are a necessity. And we've gotten to the point where we're saying we want to make this risk-free, even to the point where we don't have typical builder upgrades. Anything we built here has every upgrade built into it. [We] take those decisions away [and] make it easy [for residents].
We went through that change from a normal builder, and we listened to our customers. This is going to be their last house. So, we make sure they get their granite countertops, their beautiful kitchen,and their stainless steel appliances, all the stuff that would normally be [an option].
[People don't need to ask] “Should I pay for that?” You know what? You get it here. And whether you want it or not, you're going to get it, because I think it's something that just adds that lifestyle. This is your last house. We look at it that way. You're going to live here in the best place possible, with all the things you've always ever wanted. And also, on top of that, all the community [is] outside there.
So, we've slowly kind of morphed ourselves. But I'm seeing that our residents, as … the younger ones come in, are loving it, and demanding it, and wanting more of it. It's changed rapidly in terms of what it is people want out of our community. And I don't know if it's cart and horse [or] horse and cart, but I've seen it change dramatically in the new residents that come in here. They want it, they expect it, and they want more. And that's [also] what we want. We want to deliver more.
What’s the biggest change St. Elizabeth Village brings to retirement living? [3:57]
I would say the redesign of the entire community based on understanding that we were building a resort that people were going to live at forever. [It’s really an] extended vacation. That was the biggest epiphany for us. How [did that all come] together?
We [decided] that in order to make this a more enjoyable experience, we're going to theme the whole village. I like the town square because it became a gathering place. So, we designed that in. We hired FORREC to do that.
We went beyond that, though. I said, I'm not in a town. They kind of have their little subdivisions and everybody congregates in town squares and they have the golf courses. [We] wanted the whole community to feel like that, not just the town square, I want the entire community themed. So, wherever they go, the club houses, their houses, the parks, everything has to feel like it belongs. So they [FORREC] did that, and they wrote the story about it. And we learned. How they do this is, it's not just a matter of “I'm going to stick up some antiques and make it feel cool.” It's an entire story that's built, about the community, and everything has to be consistent with it.
What’s been the biggest recent change at St. Elizabeth Village? [5:27]
I do think the activities, the social side of it, that does change. People have different needs. Our job is to listen to them, in terms of what customer experience they would like out of it,and ensure that we can facilitate that. I always say, “This is the palette.” They get to paint their life here. It definitely is changing as our demographic gets younger. They are way more active. They're asking for different types of activities. Pickleball was a good example. [People asked us to] put a pickleball court in, and we did. We facilitate it, and we continue to listen and grow with our residents as they become more active.
Let's face it, today's senior is a lot a lot more active than yesterday's senior. I think there's a couple of aspects to that. One is that people are definitely healthier and younger and more active. They understand what it takes to stay feeling young. Our community facilitates that. We have people living here in their 90s independently. We've seen the studies, and I see it firsthand, empirically, [that] the more active you are … not just physically [where] you’re keeping your body active (which obviously is very important) keeping it in shape, but mentally is a big one. So, you can stay in shape, but sitting in your household all by yourself, you're going to deteriorate.
What we get here is not just the physical side. We have the gym, we have the pool, we have all that, but it's that social interaction, it's that that mental side of it that keeps people active, mentally active. That, I believe, really gives people a much longer, more enjoyable lifestyle.
This isn't about subsistence. This is about enjoying your life. That's the difference between a retirement community, a place to live [versus] a place where you can be active and you're healthier, both mentally and physically … and that community lifestyle. You're not forcing yourself to go to a gym. What you're doing [instead] is going in the walking club. And we hang out and we talk.
What are some current changes underway at St. Elizabeth Village? [8:04]
Upper Mill Pond is a little bit of a different build form. Most or all of our current build form is a townhouse. We call them garden homes, a ground-oriented lifestyle. [Upper Mill Pond] is multistorey. They will have a health and wellness fitness center, and facilities right in their building, as well. We built some more facilities in there, and they have … two gathering rooms, a lounge and a facility that's for parties and things like that, a party room. So, they do have amenities that are kind of more convenient in that lifestyle.
Their lifestyle is different there. They do have a little more lock-and-go. They can leave their room, go down to the pool, the barbecue area, and some of the facilities … without walking outside. So, there are some benefits of living in that particular build form … There's some other conveniences in there that the garden homes don't have, things like the facilities built right into their building. But otherwise, they're being looked at as just part of the community because … it's the room. The room [is] a room at Disney. “Do I have a suite [or] do I have a single room with two double beds [or] with two queen size [or] two kings?” That's really what I'm supplying in the build form. Some work better for others.
You have underground parking so... in the winter, it's nicer. It facilitates … never having to be in the snow if you don't want to. So, there are some conveniences built into that building that aren't in the garden homes. But in the end, it's really the lifestyle that we're offering. It's just a different type of room at the resort, that someone may have a preference for in terms of lifestyle.
What are some forthcoming changes in the industry? [10:12]
We're talking about facilities like ours. For independence, when you're empty nesters, [you think], “I'm going to go hang out with my friends and have fun! I'm going to really enjoy the passions of my life!” You don't even have to be retired! We have people that work, here. [People here are] empty nesters. You're at that point in your life where … you might be working, but your kids are grown up and moved out of the house. [You feel like] “I don't want to cut the grass. I don't want to do any of that, that's all taken care of for me! I'm going to hang out and do the things I love to do, and enjoy my lifestyle.” Whatever that might be. Everybody has a different passion in their life.
People [should] understand that this is available to them. I think that people will demand a lot more of that. 30 years ago, people used to retire poor. So, most of our facilities were built around just ensuring that they had a place to live and food to eat. That's what this charity [The St. Elizabeth Home Society] was really built on. Sister Elizabeth, who built her vision, was really about helping the poor elderly. That's important, and I think that has to continue on.
Thankfully, seniors are retiring now with a lot more wealth. The boomers are the wealthiest demographic ever to retire. So, they have the means. Now they're looking for the lifestyle to go with that. It's not just about, as I keep going back to, subsistence, and housing, and food, and a clean place to live. It's about lifestyle, enjoying all the various years of our lives. It should be better, quite frankly, and it is for our independent lifestyle. There's no reason that can't be applied to assisted living and long-term care, albeit it'll be different.
We should be looking at people [differently than we do]. Sometimes [people] are physically ailing, but they have the mental acuity … to be involved in a lot of activities that [are] mentally challenging as opposed to physically challenging. We should be providing that, and providing the palette for them to enjoy their lives based on whatever they have available to them. Whatever faculties that you still have available, there's no reason you still can't be enjoying life.
St. Elizabeth Village in Hamilton brings to life all that’s best about the 55-plus lifestyle in Canada. This 146 acre community on the Mountain is a spectacular haven, well-loved by residents. Learn more about St. Elizabeth Village.