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Life doesn't get any better

"I call this place The Ritz," says Shirley England. Years ago, she had afternoon tea in the Palm Court at The Ritz in London, England. It was an experience she's never forgotten. And now, to all intents and purposes, she feels as if she's living in The Ritz. Like thousands of other seniors moving into luxury retirement residences, she's convinced life doesn't get any better.

Shirley, 78, moved into the Amica at City Centre residence in Mississauga last November, and can't stop talking about it: "It has everything I could want." After eating alone for 10 years since her husband died, she now enjoys the sociability of lunch and dinner under the chandeliers in the elegant restaurant-"and the food is fantastic." She loves swimming in the pool and attending the residence's attractive movie theatre with its leather armchairs-"and the popcorn is free!"

Retirement homes used to be just that - for retirement. The assumption was that older citizens would simply park themselves and quietly vegetate .That's changed. The new generation of retirees, Statistics Canada reports, is financially better off than any previous generation. "They are better educated, they are Internet savvy and they are active," reports the agency.

The result is that luxury is the new byword in retirement living. Not content with simply maintaining their former lifestyles, many new retirees-freed of snow-clearing, gardening, cooking and other chores-expect to live even fuller lives than before.

Increased longevity is part of the story: StatsCan says in the last 12 years alone, life expectancy at age 65 increased by 1.2 years. And retirement residences, because they provide regular, balanced meals, exercise and care, are adding bonus years. "I came in here feeling pretty sick," says Flora McGrath, 86, a resident at the Colonel By residence in Ottawa, "But I got better very quickly. The care is very good."

At Hazelton Place, guests sip their wine and dine just a few feet from the crowds on fashionable Avenue Road-right next to the Ferrari dealer-and may be heading afterwards to the spa, the book club, the ballet or a performance of The Phantom of the Opera.

"They used to call them old folks' homes, and people just used to sit around," says Percy Budman, 88, who moved into Hazelton Place a few months ago. "This place isn't like that. There's always something going on."

Where residents were once content with one room, now they want two, and sometimes two-bedroom apartments. "He snores!" is the explanation women give for wanting that second bedroom. "I just like lots of room," says Jack Newbegin, who enjoys a 730-square-foot, two-room apartment at the new Windermere on the Mount, in London.

Ambience, too, is a great selling point. At the Windermere, green lawns run down to the banks of the River Thames, and there are regular concerts in the glowing chapel of the former convent.

In the soaring atrium of the Bradgate Arms in uptown Toronto, residents take afternoon tea off silver trays while the fountain splashes and everyone's favourite resident, an African red-tailed parrot named Pickles, whistles his song. There's valet parking and, if residents don't feel like coming down, there's room service at no extra cost. Reflecting the new power (and prosperity) of the people who live there, a residents' council goes over the annual capital budget for the Bradgate with executive director Stephanie Regent.

At The Grenadier, across from High Park in Toronto, shopping is one of the big attractions. Residents only have to go outside and walk a few steps to enjoy the stores of Bloor West Village, one of the city's toniest shopping districts.

Part of the explanation for the growing prosperity of many of today's seniors is that their homes have risen so much in value that when they sell they have a substantial nest egg. Ernie Doran, 90, a resident at Amica at City Centre, says, "I was shocked at the price. I had never rented before. I had lived in a house for 50 years. I would not have considered it if I didn't have a house to sell. But I looked at what houses sell for, and I realized I had enough capital." Also, says Lisa Visconti, customer relations manager at The Grenadier, "a lot have very good company or government pensions. And a lot saved for retirement-they really did-and the payoff is comfortable living now." She mentions, too, that many seniors with disabilities get their doctors to fill out a form that allows them to write off some of their retirement residence costs.

Some people may actually be saving money when they move to a retirement residence. Shirley's friend at City Centre, Muriel Patterson, also 78, was living in Wasaga Beach with her husband, Pat, 92 and in a wheelchair, when things got too much. "I knew we were going to have to move. I couldn't handle winter up north anymore. I couldn't face chipping ice and getting Pat in and out of the car," Muriel says.

Four months before the move, she started recording every expense. "I was filling the car with gas twice a week, food was pushing $200 a week. There was heating and a $400 monthly charge in our gated community. Things had become so terribly expensive." Adding up all the figures-"it proved to me it could be done. People say, how can you possibly afford it?" She tells them she and Pat were spending almost as much in Wasaga Beach as they pay now: $4,100 a month for their apartment, meals and all services."It's lots of money," says Shirley, whose all-in monthly payment is $3,150 a month, "but it's worth it." And, with a twinkle: "My kids say if I run out of money, they'll help!"







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