A virtual retirement village
No physical walls, those over 55 get to enjoy the services of a physical retirement village right in Singapore.
A pilot that started in November last year, ASPIRE55 is Asia’s first virtual retirement village where there are no physical walls but those over 55 get to enjoy the services of a physical retirement village. Focused on encouraging these baby boomers to stay healthy and independent for as long as they can, the programme has an element of the kampong spirit and a bonding with the young.
Ageless Online talks to the woman behind the concept, Janice Chia, who is also the founder of Xperiential Events and Ageing Asia, about why such a concept and where she is heading:
Why a virtual retirement village rather than an actual retirement village? Is there such a need for this?
Every city in Asia is different. In the Singapore context where housing infrastructure is well-developed with easy access to transport networks, food, shopping and medical services, a retirement village in the traditional sense may not be the most affordable solution for the majority of ageing Singaporeans. Fees may range upwards of S$500 per month so that operators can sustain the delivery of services and activities for the residents. At ASPIRE55, we are an intergenerational community for all ages. Those 55 years and above join as members, and those below can also be a part of the community, joining as Friends of the Village, where they join our activities as volunteers.
Ageing is about having options. Some may choose to live in a retirement village and others may choose to live at home. Having a virtual village adds to the choices available to our population.
Many have the misconception that a virtual village is an online community. The only thing virtual about ASPIRE55 is that our members use the website to register their interests for activities. Our website serves as a channel of communication with our members. At ASPIRE55, we are focus on being a well-being community that offers a combination of social, health and care services.
Fostering a ‘kampong spirit’ earlier was easy when life was easier and people were living in actual kampongs. How are you doing this in your village? How are you getting younger people involved in the programme?
We have created a village gathering space, a space that we call the Wellbeing Innovation Lab at One Commonwealth. This is where members come together for their twice-weekly fitness programme that helps them to increase muscle strength and balance for fall and incontinence prevention.
We also use this space for our ASPIRE55 signature potluck sessions. This is a unique space that is creatively designed in every aspect to inspire conversations. As you walk in, the barefoot environment is like your own home, where you remove your shoes. You will see a long dining table and kitchen where it is typical for families and friends to gather for makan and conversations.
As families get smaller these days, the opportunity to gather at the dining table reduces, similarly, the opportunity to cook and share recipes. As you proceed further, the circuit style of our strength training equipment provides opportunities for conversations while working out.
We involve young people via the staff we hire and our Friends of the Village programme which is free for people of all ages. People who join Friends of the Village are children of our members, our friends, industry colleagues and general public who are enthusiastic about belonging to our extended family. When they participate at our activities, their role is to facilitate fun-playing games, create/have conversations and just spending the day with our members, like they would with their own families.
I noticed that your programme is open to those 55 and above. Why not start earlier like 50?
We had to pick a number and 55 represents the baby boomer population that we believe will challenge the way we age with their changing needs. They are not going to retire like previous generations, instead, they are interested in retaining control and independence over their own lives. They are better educated, travel more and well aware of the need for a healthy lifestyle to age successfully. They are a generation that we hope will skip nursing homes because they will find a way to age healthier.
Your programme supports ageing-in-place, which according to the HDB survey is something that many seniors want. Can you share more about ASPIRE55 and the programmes being offered? What about transportation services?
Designed by a team of young and energetic facilitators, our programmes are focused on fun, health and fostering of the ‘kampong’ spirit. This membership programme is tailored for over 55s who would like to take a proactive approach towards staying healthy, mobile and independent as they age. Members will participate in preventive health activities like strength training for falls and incontinence prevention, brain training to reduce risks of dementia, and regular social activities.
All of our Gold members are monitored on their fitness progression on a quarterly basis via the latest in global technologies from Japan and Finland. Each Gold member receives a customised fitness report every quarter.
We organise our Successful Ageing series talks every two to three months, inviting a medical professional to be our guest speaker to share insights on how our members can age successfully. We also try to partner with events in the community. Recently, we partnered with NTUC U Live for their Walk for Wellness event, where we brought a team of ASPIRE55 members to participate. We also provided free health checks for participants of the walk.
We offer concierge services, including a village driver service, which promotes a sense of reliability and trust. However, this service is used minimally by members because many are still mobile and independent. They like the fact that the service is available one day if they need it. An example of how the service has been used is when members need to head for a day operation or medical appointment and would prefer a dedicated driver to assist them from their doorstep, pick them up from the hospital and drop them off at their doorstep. For children of our members, this provides them the additional security and convenience, in the event they are overseas or unable to take leave due to work commitments.
You started the pilot in November, how has it been? What have been some challenges and lessons learned?
It has been a rewarding experience. As a village that focuses on well-being to enable successful ageing-in-place, we are all about motivating our members to exercise twice a week with us at the Wellbeing Innovation Lab. Those that have shown the biggest improvements in muscle strength and balance are those that have never exercised before and/or have scoffed conventional gyms. We can achieve this because we focus on being their second family. Our trainers play the role of children and grandchildren, we care about the conversations we have, and they show concern about our lives and what we do.
Our biggest challenge is publicity. Our membership is via word-of-mouth. As a small organisation, we do not have the marketing muscle to engage in mass marketing. In addition, we don’t believe in pushing for membership. We like to introduce the activities we do by offering free trials for over 55s in Singapore to participate.
One of the highlights of 2014 was our first Active Ageing Exercise Trial sponsored by ASPIRE55, which saw 36 graduates complete a 10-week programme. They each received a certificate of completion and a four-page report on their fitness progression, i.e. body composition, workout process and muscle strength improvement. We have launched our second Active Ageing Exercise Trial from March 3 to May 9, 2015.
How many members do you have currently? How old is your oldest member?
Currently, we have over 850 members; the majority are Silver Members, a membership tier that is free for anyone aged over 55 living in Singapore. We also have other membership tiers. Gold Membership is S$1,500 for 12 months where they are entitled to twice weekly strength and balance training sessions with a small group trainer (no more than nine in a group), and Elite Membership is S$500 for eight strength and balance training sessions. Gold Members also receive complimentary access to our concierge hotline and special invites to private functions such as our signature potlucks organised four times a year.
What extra benefits do they get from the Silver membership?
For a limited time only, all Silver Members are entitled to a complimentary health monitoring fitness evaluation (body fat and muscle mass) valued at S$150 per person. Our oldest member is 82 years old, who happens to be my grandma.
How many home care providers, physiotherapists, gyms, technology providers, and mobility and health monitoring providers are taking part in the programme? Can you name some of your major partners? So how does it work, these service providers go directly to the seniors’ homes and provide services there?
We work with different partners on various activities. Our goal is not to replicate existing activities in the community. For example, if we know that another organisation is organising a walkathon, we would work with them and bring our members along to that activity. Our major partner is HUR from Finland, which we use their equipment for our strength training programmes. If seniors require a service, we will put them in touch with a provider within our village network and assist in connecting them with the enquiry. This facilitation service is free for all our Elite and Gold Members.
What are your plans after the six-month pilot? Are you planning to add more services at a later stage?
We have plans to expand all over Singapore and Asia-Pacific. But first, we would like to focus on our flagship Wellbeing Innovation Lab. We envision many small labs in Singapore, each supporting a family of ASPIRE55 members, performing the role of an extended family like a kampong community, helping our members age well, as they continue living in their own homes.
Are you modelling ASPIRE55 from the Beacon Hill Village in the US? Are you running it as a not-for-profit basis with revenues coming from membership fees and donations. What about for those who cannot afford it?
We have learnt a lot from Beacon Hill Village and we are grateful for the sharing. However, Asia and US are very different. We have learnt that it is important to localise international models. At ASPIRE55, we have developed our own operational model, brand and activities. We are a for-profit social enterprise that aims to support successful ageing by being self-sustainable. Even though we are a young organisation, we have provided sponsorship for membership fees and free workout sessions. We are also providing complimentary Silver memberships to enable anyone aged over 55 years old to be a member of our village.
Anything else you would like to add?
Although we are focused on those over 55, we create an environment where the interactions are an intergenerational mix of young and old. As the first in Singapore and Asia, we pride ourselves on cultivating a family and home environment whilst we encourage older people to look after their health, increase strength, and improve balance and memory via our programmes.
We seem to be a perfect match for people who are looking for a small club-like environment that is unlike traditional large-scale clubs and gyms. While our membership base is big, our typical member activities range from as small as five to 40, making it easy for members to get to know each other with meaningful interactions.
* For more information, visit www.aspire55.com to register for your free Silver membership if you are 55 years and above, or Friends of the Village if you are under 55. You can also register to join our mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org.