Seniors Consider Alternative Housing Options In Ipoh

Residents at GreenAcres Retirement Village in Ipoh, Perak, speak about living “independently” as they age. Total Investment ED talks about government incentives for senior living.

IPOH, March 17 – Joy was working in administration at a university in Canada when she decided to move back home to take care of her ageing mother in Ipoh, Perak.

The initial arrangement involved Joy taking a year off from work to see if she could live in the northern state. “I was from Kuala Lumpur, born and bred. But, I liked it (Ipoh) so much that I went and looked for somewhere to live. And then, later on, my husband joined me.”

Her husband, Gerry, who was working in IT in Canada, decided to retire and be with Joy after living half the world apart for a year. “Joy was still looking after her mother. That was going to be a full-time job. And so I said, okay, I can retire.”

In pursuit of a new house that was “senior-friendly” and one they could afford near Ipoh, Joy came across an advertisement online on a new development called GreenAcres Retirement Village in Bandar Meru Raya, a 20-minute drive up north from the Perak state capital.

“At that time when I saw this GreenAcres being advertised online, there was just mud and three show units. I came and looked at the plan, and I liked it. And then, I emailed sales and asked them, what is the plan, how much is the cost – so that’s how we got here,” Joy said.

GreenAcres Retirement Village resident Singam speaks to CodeBlue in an interview in Ipoh, Perak, on November 10, 2022. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

For Singam, a retiree who had worked as an engineer and manager, it was the realisation that he would one day be unable to do simple repairs and maintain his home in Melaka that prompted him to consider alternative living options. Singam is currently in his 70s.

“I mean it’s nice to have a nice, big home but you have to maintain it, and getting good support is very difficult. I was thinking to myself, one day, I was up on the ladder fixing something and I said to myself, ‘How long am I going to be doing this?’

“I’m going to reach a point where I’m not going to be able to do this.

“That’s when I said, okay, it’s time to think about moving into a retirement home. Not that we were going to move immediately but a cousin of mine had moved into a retirement village in Melbourne, so I knew the concept,” Singam said.

He soon found out about GreenAcres, a 13-acre independent senior living project by real estate developer Total Investment Sdn Bhd (also known as TI Homes). Singam said he spent an entire week in Ipoh to get a taste of life here before moving in permanently.

“We came to Ipoh and spent a week here, walking around and looking at the places, and I said, Ipoh is a small town in a big town. It’s big enough that you get a lot of resources and things like that but the feel is still the feeling of a small town – and I liked that.

“I don’t like big cities. I was born in KL, I lived there for a long time but I’ve had enough of it. So it suited my wife and me perfectly. That was the thinking (for moving to Ipoh),” Singam said.

In the past five years, GreenAcres has welcomed dozens of tenants, most of whom are locals from various parts of the country, including Perak, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur. Some foreigners from Hong Kong, Canada, and Scotland also reside in the retirement village.

The GreenAcres development consists of five phases, with the first two phases completed in 2014. These phases comprise 54 villa units for lease, exclusively for individuals aged 55 years and above. Currently, 46 of these villa units are occupied.

The villas are available in one or two bedroom four plans, with built-up areas that range from 734 sq ft to 1,105 sq ft. The leasing deposit ranges from RM310,000 to RM466,000, and it is a life-long leasing deposit for one couple in one villa. 

Once the deposit is paid, tenants will not need to pay any monthly rent. However, they will be responsible for the monthly utility fees and maintenance fees of 60 sen per sq ft.

Total Investment Sdn Bhd executive director John Chong speaks to CodeBlue in an interview in Ipoh, Perak, on November 10, 2022. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

According to John Chong, the executive director of Total Investment, GreenAcres was created with the goal of providing the highest standard of senior living in the country.

“If you ask most Malaysians about seniors living, most of them will think of an old folks’ home where many have been in existence for 20 to 30 years. 

“What happens is they would take a bungalow and they would renovate it, and then they would pack the seniors in like they were in a dormitory. For a long time in Malaysia, the standards were low, maybe because guidelines and standards are almost non-existent. 

“When your general standards are low, it means that most people do not want to go into an old folk’s home. They see it as a place where you, basically, wait to die so there’s a lot of stigma attached to it,” Chong told CodeBlue in an interview.

The company based in Ipoh initially considered the concept of a retirement village in Malaysia by examining independent senior living facilities and models from other countries.

“When we visited these retirement villages, we found that the seniors and people living there were generally happy. The environment was good, and many services were offered.  We thought, why can’t seniors in Malaysia enjoy this lifestyle too? Instead of offering old-school products that people are fearful of, we need something that they can feel positive about.

“So really, the goal we’re trying to achieve is to give a better standard of living and a better lifestyle for seniors. At the heart of our mission is to be able to achieve this,” Chong said.

Independent Living For Seniors

Spacious villa at GreenAcres Retirement Village. Picture credit: GreenAcres.

What attracted Joy to GreenAcres the most was the idea of independent living. “My mom died at 91, and even at 86, she was fiercely independent.”

Joy appreciated that residents are not confined to the retirement home compound, where they are looked after and eat food that is prepared for them every day.

“At GreenAcres, you have your own building and you can do anything you want. You can choose to participate in activities or social activities if you like. Otherwise, by all means, live here and it’s a nice community. So, that’s important, being independent.”

The villas at GreenAcres Retirement Village feature senior-friendly bathrooms and a 24-hour emergency call system. Picture credit: GreenAcres.

Joy and Gerry now spend their days volunteering at a local church. Joy is chair of the membership and evangelism at the church and leader of a cell group. 

“I do a lot of live video stream activities, including PowerPoints for the stream. There are also weekly meetings for the cell group, so there’s a lot of interaction with the church,” Joy said.

Gerry is building the membership system for the church. “When I get tired of sitting behind the computer, I go outside to water my orchids. I’d fertilise them and do some pruning here and there.”

In the evenings, Gerry can often be found on his patio, tending to his small garden of orchids and heliconias. 

Gerry and his garden of orchids and heliconias at the GreenAcres Retirement Village in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

“I tried to put the bougainvillaeas in, and they didn’t want to bloom. I told them, ‘You bloom or you’re out of here.’ Then we have the heliconia, and they are doing great,” Gerry said.

Singam was particularly impressed by GreenAcres’ three-stage design, which offers residents independent living in the first stage, assisted living in the second stage, and inpatient care in the third stage. “It’s great to see that they have this plan in place,” Singam said.

Singam revealed that his biggest fear about ageing is experiencing mental decline. “One of the big problems that can happen is the question of whether you can retain your mental faculties,” he said.

“What’s striking is that you may not even realise that it’s happening. While others can perceive the decline, you may be unaware, which is a significant concern.”

From Senior Living To Aged Care

Landscaped outdoor spaces and walkways at the GreenAcres Retirement Village in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

GreenAcres’ development is moving towards its third phase, which will focus on providing assisted living or aged care. According to Chong, the latest phase has received planning approval from the Ipoh City Council and is currently in the building plan phase.

“I don’t think we will face too many obstacles, mainly because in many of the designs we have, as I mentioned earlier, there aren’t many guidelines in Malaysia yet. Therefore, we take inspiration from overseas models,” Chong said. “Overall, what we aim to achieve exceeds the minimum requirements here in Malaysia.”

Phase 3 will have a different format than the first two phases. The latest phase will adopt a multi-storey concept, where residents will be provided with individual rooms instead of villa units. Basic amenities such as meals, cleaning, and care services will also be provided to residents.

Private villas at the GreenAcres Retirement Village in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

Chong said the new phase will not involve the construction of a hospital as care services will be provided by their partners.

“Hospitals are a completely different ballgame because that comes under health care already and comes under a completely different set of regulations – Ministry of Health (MOH) et cetera. 

“Even for independent living, there is currently no ministry that regulates that. Aged care traditionally comes under the Department of Social Welfare. A lot of the old folk’s homes are currently regulated as care centres under the department.

“We have never been in health care so it’s probably easier to partner. Even overseas, it’s usually the same arrangement. In countries like Australia, the US, and the UK, the operators for a lot of these senior living facilities are independent, they are standalone, similarly because they are regulated differently from hospitals,” Chong said.

Clubhouse and private villas at the GreenAcres Retirement Village clubhouse in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

Construction on Phase 3 is expected to begin in 2023 and will take about three years to complete. The four-story building will consist of 77 rooms available for lease.

Regarding pricing for the units and services provided in Phase 3, Chong explained that the costs are expected to be higher due to the increased demand for aged care services.

“It will tend to cost more mainly because when you deal with aged care, it includes, for example, more manpower to provide services to your residence. We can expect the cost to be slightly higher,” Chong said.

What The Government Can Do To Improve Senior Living, Aged Care

Lounge area at the GreenAcres Retirement Village clubhouse in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

The demand for retirement villages in Malaysia is on the rise despite being small in scale, Chong said. 

“The main reason is that many people in Malaysia are not exposed yet to this new form of retirement living. A lot of people have seen the typical old folk’s home so there’s still a lot of education needed. And I suppose the best education would be to have more projects like this take place so that people can visit them.

“Sometimes, just like any other products out there, you don’t know what you need until you see it. That’s why we hope that, slowly, there will be more projects coming up in Malaysia,” Chong said.

When asked about potential improvements to senior living and aged care in the country, Chong highlighted the absence of government incentives for such services.

“They have talked about it. Previously, there was this government agency called Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit) where they had this entry point project – they had this classification for retirement villages. They used to encourage it.

“But the difficulty was that Pemandu was only approving the projects. In terms of incentives, they would tell us to talk to MIDA (Malaysian Investment Development Authority). But when we approached MIDA then, even now, they will say that the government has not approved any incentives.

“The kinds of incentives offered when MIDA wants to promote any industry will be things like giving pioneer status, tax exemptions – just like with all those free trade zones and high tech parks.

“We started this discussion with MIDA five years ago. But until now, there are no particular incentives given by the government to developers,” Chong said.

Billiard room at the GreenAcres Retirement Village clubhouse in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

With regard to senior care, GreenAcres resident Singam suggested that the government could explore models implemented in countries like Singapore.

Singam explained that in Singapore, a housing estate is designed with the first two floors providing services such as shops and medical facilities, while the lower floors are for seniors and the upper floors for younger people. This way, residents can access services easily, including administrative services with the government department. 

However, Singam pointed out two issues that could prevent such a model from succeeding in Malaysia.

The first issue is safety, which is better in Singapore due to strict policing. The second and bigger problem is that capable people are not given the chance to run these operations in Malaysia, leading to poor maintenance and a run-down facility after a few years.

“So this model is excellent, but it’s not going to work here. Unless, the two factors that I addressed are taken care of – the safety of the residents and maintenance of these facilities,” Singam said.

“This kind of place (GreenAcres), not many people can afford. The biggest problem is the initial capital outlay is very large, and we could afford it because at that point I decided that we were going to move to a retirement village. I didn’t want to hold on to my house because that has become a burden for me.”

Fitness centre/ gym at the GreenAcres Retirement Village clubhouse in Ipoh, Perak. Picture by Saw Siow Feng for CodeBlue.

Joy believes that the government should prioritise creating more senior-friendly spaces.

She said the lack of ramps, handrails, and other necessary facilities makes it difficult for seniors to perform basic tasks like going to the toilet, buying groceries, or eating at restaurants. Even with ramps, they are often too steep to be practical. “And the government hasn’t done anything about it,” she said. 

“The government doesn’t really think about this, and I think the statistics show this, right? 2030, 2040 it’s going to be serious. There will be so many seniors. Now is the time if they want to do it.”

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