In a culture with family firmly set as its cornerstone, the concept of care homes has long been in need of a major charm offensive in Ireland.

Perceived as institutional settings and a proverbial last – functional rather than comfortable – stop before the grave, committing loved ones to or volunteering for residency remains the exception rather than the rule.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly not helped the sector’s cause, casting question marks over the quality of the “care” component as a consequence of it contributing to more than half of the Republic’s recorded Covid-19 deaths.

To be judged purely on this unprecedented period in history is, of course, unjust, not least as nursing homes demonstrated their significant societal value during lockdown and social-distancing measures; giving those prohibited from visiting relatives comfort that grandparents and parents were not completely starved of human interaction.

And there is also no doubt that many of those working within their walls – the care assistants, nurses, cleaning staff and managers – have delivered above and beyond expectations during the past months.

Regardless, reform looks to be something of an inevitability in respect of State-provided homes after they were labelled as “outdated” in a recent Health Information and Quality Authority report, and despite their unpopularity there is a very real need for care facilities to become increasingly prominent features of our towns and cities.

Why? Because Ireland’s current scarcity of provision for retirement living means it is set on a road to a massive supply and demand imbalance. The country’s ageing population, and a future spike in need from those “baby boomers” now in their 60s and 70s, is going to leave thousands requiring a place to call home.

Modern life is simply no longer conducive to the traditional and idealistic practice of multiple generations of the same family all living under one roof or in neighbouring properties. Ireland’s high cost of living means most adult sons and daughters are juggling work commitments and childcare and do not have the luxury of time to routinely check in on or cater for their elderly parents. 

It is a reality for which the national pension system and funding for public care homes are woefully unprepared, so it is inevitable that private schemes must come to the fore. 

Such circumstances will certainly pique the interest of those seeking investment prospects in real estate. An undersupplied market suggests long-term stable cash flows and a chance to diversify and balance risk across portfolios.

Indeed, retirement living appears a sure-fire bet when viewed against the challenges of other sectors such as retail, hospitality, leisure and commercial property, where Covid’s legacy is one of uncertainty and volatility. 

This distress is likely to generate previously hard-to-come-by opportunities of acquiring sites in suitable places to construct new buildings or repurpose existing structures.

Having the money to finance builds and care home operations is all well and good but, like any business, it means nothing if the product does not appeal to its target customers. 

Perceptions in Ireland have to be challenged to make occupancy desirable and not a decision of last resort. So is it now time for the Republic to embrace the creation of US-style retirement villages? To make that move from the family home and long-loved neighbours an aspirational one rather than just something done in the autumn years of life.

Shifting the focus from stairlifts to hospitality would certainly help.  

Mixed developments of “close care” and assisted-living flats complemented by swimming pools, spas, coffee shops and restaurants will be immediately more appealing to forthcoming generations who prize independence, security and being part of a vibrant community. 

And in the event of a Covid-20 or 21, the benefits of containment in a village setting rather than the all-too-common isolation of a single room in a care home are abundant. Social-distancing is a far easier pill to swallow when you have large, maintained grounds to walk in, balconies from which to join yoga or Zumba classes and like-minded neighbours to converse with.

Presenting retirement villages as a positive life choice will require more than just the promise of private parking and parkland though. State support in the form of capital gains relief and protecting inheritance pots would provide a more palatable package with which to persuade people to give up the keys to their often needlessly large family homes. 

A change in the Government’s approach to planning and zoning is also required. There is a significant bias, and political pressure, to prioritise residential developments to remove people from housing lists, but additional thought needs to be given to the mid- and long-term as well as the short-term.

At Duke McCaffrey our appetite to help Ireland build a better future for its population has been whetted by working on a number of new developments which will deliver significant residential care settings.  

As construction consultants, innovation has always been part and parcel of the services we provide and such imaginative thinking – grounded in the expertise of the art-of-the-possible – needs to be applied to bring Florida-style retirement villages to the likes of Finglas, Falcarragh, Foynes and Ferbane.

Modern methods of construction, design and build solutions and an appreciation of preserving investors’ profit margins can help to transform the options open to those on the precipice of downsizing. 

Challenging convention – be it by bringing residential villages to struggling high streets or simply making the most of limited space by exploring alternative footprints and modular designs – can exceed the expectations of both potential developers and their tenants of tomorrow. 

In respect of quality and profitability, the care home sector is primed to explode over the next decade in the same way that student accommodation has over the past ten years.  

The transformation of uni digs from drafty bedsits to technology-rich, en-suite apartments should give those nearing retirement cause for hope. A change in culture need not be uncomfortable for anyone.

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