“It’s like opening up a present: you get it, you open it up, that ‘wow’ feeling of unexpected joy.”

That might be how one you’d expect one to describe discovering a new city around the world, or spending time with your first grandchild, but moving to a retirement residence and it being “a feeling of unexpected joy”? If your only experience with retirement homes is from previous eras, you may be surprised to learn they’ve come a long way from their reputation for having an institutional aesthetic.

Given that within the next 10 years, the number of people aged 65 plus will increase by more than 50 per cent, and that we now live a third of our lives after the age of 65, the demand for retirement residences is staged to explode. With that in mind, Canadian pioneers in retirement residences Amica is on a mission to build residences that allow you to remain a life that’s purposeful and engaged. “We’re not retiring off into the sunset. There are new and evolving expectations of what senior living should be,” says Sean Taggart, chief marketing officer at Amica Senior Lifestyles.

For Joyce Francechisini and her husband, Romeo, both 85, they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lifestyle moving into one has afforded them. “It was an unanticipated joy,” she says.

Prompted by Romeo’s health concerns, the couple moved into Amica Bronte Harbour in Oakville, ON, in January 2018. “I had to look after him, the house, the garden… I had to do all that stuff because he had very serious heart surgery and he couldn’t do anything for nine months. It was crucial that we get out of the house. It suddenly became a burden to us,” says Joyce.

Although they were living in Grimsby, moving to Amica in Oakville made sense for them since their daughter lives just 10 minutes away from the residence and its location ticked off a lot of boxes for them – nearby lake access, shopping, a pharmacy, doctors and a supermarket all within walking distance. “I didn’t want to be in the middle of a cornfield!” she says, noting that some residences can be situated in the middle of rural areas.

That independent lifestyle and being close to family are all important factors when it comes to choosing a retirement residence. And it’s one that Amica takes into consideration when selecting locations for their residences. “We believe that that physical environment is an enabler for quality of life,” says Claudia Salgado, Amica’s vice president of design, who notes that they incorporate discreet design interventions so that residents can live more independently.

Rather than aging in place, the company prefers to approach it from the angle of helping one age in one’s community. “Once you reach a certain age, it shouldn’t mean that you have to leave your surroundings,” she notes. Their residences are built to encourage social encounters and helping residents feel a part of the neighbourhood.

That includes everything from having a tuck shop on site, along with art classes, cooking classes, a garden centre, a spa, library, theatre and a space that residents can book to host a potluck or party.

Joyce takes full advantage of the social lifestyle at Amica Bronte Harbour. “I never played cards before. Now I play bridge and euchre so that’s a whole new experience for me,” she says, adding that they’ve made wonderful friends there.

“Many of our friends were either dying or moving away so we were losing our social circle. Coming here, we’ve found a whole new group of friends and people with whom we have things in common. There are people here with double PhDs, people who have lived or worked in places around the world. You can learn about anything just by talking to people! We’ve lived in three countries so you compare what it was like when you moved to a strange country and you had to adjust, which is a little like moving here.”

You’ll often find Joyce watching movies in the theatre after supper and gardening in the solarium, reading books from the library, or in water-fit classes during the day. She also loves that they can sit wherever they wish at supper, noting that this isn’t the case at other residences that have assigned seating. The meals, in fact, are an area Amica has recently given a gourmet update to through partnering with renowned Toronto chef Mark McEwan.

Chef Mark McEwan

The chef behind some of Toronto’s top restaurants, including Bymark and the now closed North 44, worked with the Amica team on adapting a handful of nutrient-dense recipes for the residence kitchen. McEwan, from his experience with his mother and father, knows how the food at residences can often be lacking in flavour. “I wanted to make it a treat, to elevate the food in a residence like this so that meals are something to look forward to,’ he says. Now on the menu at Amica from McEwan? You might find roasted butternut squash and burrata salad, pan-seared rainbow trout with chanterelle mushroom and sweet corn risotto with citrus beurre blanc, duck confit and cinnamon apple crostata.

The meals available to residents of Amica were a factor in Maria and Abe Aleven’s decision to move in one year ago. She has celiac disease and her husband is diabetic so ensuring their meals meet their health needs was critical – not that they feel like they must eat at Amica three times a day.

In fact, what Maria and Abe love the most about their new home in Amica Bronte Harbour is they are still able to live independently. “We both still drive. I get my loaf of gluten-free bread and a sandwich across the street. We’re still in good shape and still on the move,” says Maria, 86. Yet, she doesn’t discount the comfort of living in residence staffed with health professionals. “I do like the security of health care if you need it. We have the emergency pendants, if we need them” she says.

For their daughter Joan Poulton, she’s happy that it’s a decision her parents made on their own. “My father is 90 and Mom will be 87 in January. They’re very mobile and they don’t show any signs of slowing down. I feel that sometimes they feel their decision has been premature, but I think they undervalue the great peace of mind it’s given them,” she says. It’s definitely given her a sense of relief. Poulton lives an hour away, and her sister 10 minutes away from her, so knowing there’s an emergency button to push or that her parents can always call someone on staff and everyone knows who they are.

“Some of their friends call it the five-star hotel. I think they feel really lucky to be there. My parents historically always hosted Christmas. They’re still hosting it this year. They’ve booked the private dining room and the library at Amica,” says Pulton. “I’m really happy they’re in a place where they’re well taken care of.”