The retirement living industry is moving in the right direction. Just don’t use the word “retirees”, says Retirement Living Council chair Marie-Louise MacDonald.
MacDonald, the chief executive officer of Masonic Care WA, was elected chair of the representative body for retirement village operators in February and also sits on the Property Council’s national Board.
She says it’s an “exciting time” to represent the private and not-for-profit village owners and operators working under the aegis of the Retirement Living Council, and supporting the “universal desire” of older Australians to stay independent and engaged in the community.
“There’s a misconception in the minds of Australians that our residents – our customers – are vulnerable, frail aged people. They’re not! They are independent individuals and not at all homogenous in terms of the aspirations and expectations they have for retirement living.
“The word ‘retiree’ itself is a misnomer; it suggests everyone who lives in our communities is retired – and that is simply not the case.”
MacDonald says many of the residents in the 1,000-plus units in the villages operated by Masonic Care WA are employed.
She says the outdated “paternalistic” view of older people – one she sees played out by many politicians, policymakers and media commentators – “keeps me awake at night”.
“You only have to watch many news stories to see this in action, where they portray these independent adults who are living in retirement villages as indistinguishable from the frail aged who requires 24-hour care in an aged care facility. This needs to change, we need to give them voice.”
Transparency and truthfulness
MacDonald, who started her career as a registered nurse and is the WA chair of the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia, spent many years in healthcare, policy, industrial relations and
international aged care operations.
Upon returning to Australia in 2001, retirement living was a “cottage industry”, with only a few big players and certainly no ASX-listed operators”. But since then, she’s seen the industry grow in size and professionalism.
“Early in my career I thought I had to be an advocate on behalf of everyone – you learn that as a nurse. But retirement village residents are very independent, and they don’t want to be treated in these paternalistic ways. What they do want is transparency and honesty. You need to be truthful and transparent in everything you do.
“As chair of the Retirement Living Council, I have 21 people sitting around the table, representing almost half of the 150,000 retirement units in Australia. It’s a true meeting of minds, and everyone has the same mission and purpose, regardless of their corporate structure. They want to provide the best possible living environments and service to the people in their villages. And that’s inspiring.”
Working hand-in-hand with residents
“Over the last two years, our industry has made a concerted effort to bring about change,” MacDonald says.
“We’ve started thinking of our residents more as customers and we’ve worked hand-in-hand with our customers to ensure they have a voice in our policy decision making.”
She is particularly proud of the relationship between the Retirement Living Council and the Australian Retirement Villages Residents’ Association which has encouraged a change in thinking toward regarding our residents as customers. “Our mission and purpose are the same. Our customers want to have a good life, and we want them to have a good life; they want to be heard and we want to listen,” she says.
MacDonald is equally enthusiastic about the Retirement Living Code of Conduct, which comes into force on 1 January 2020. This sets a national standard for retirement village operators when marketing, selling and operating retirement communities.
While voluntary for the industry, all Retirement Living Council members have agreed to sign up to the Code, she says. The Property Council has developed a 30-minute interactive online course to help industry participants prepare.
Meanwhile, a new national Australian Retirement Village Accreditation Scheme, developed in collaboration with Leading Age Services Australia, will provide customers and their families with assurance about the quality of their community.
MacDonald likens the new Code and accreditation scheme to “chefs’ hats” in the restaurant industry which will “allow retirement villages to demonstrate their commitment to best practice, while giving customers confidence and staff pride in the place they work”.
She is also passionate about training for village managers, who she says have not had access to specialist education to prepare them for the retirement living industry. New Property Council Academy courses “build capabilities rather than just tick boxes of skills on a job description”.
“Customers see their village manager as the ‘go to’ person in their lives. We need to invert the pyramid, with people like me at the bottom, staff in the middle and residents at the top. This training helps put residents front-and-centre.”
It’s a busy time for the Retirement Living Council, but MacDonald is effervescent.
“We’ve worked collaboratively with everyone from customers to village managers, salespeople to policymakers, to redefine retirement living for the next generation.
“We are in the age of transparency, and all our actions are viewed by others. The work we are doing responds to this and will ensure that our industry promotes and protects the independence, dignity, happiness, safety and security of older Australians.”
Support the 2020 PwC/Property Council Retirement Census. Data collection will begin on 22 July, and all village operators are encouraged to participate.
Learn more about the Retirement Living Code of Conduct Code and how your organisation can sign up.
And get your tickets for the National Retirement Living Summit, which will be held on the Gold Coast from 20-22 November. Tickets are selling fast.