High-end seniors homes prove popular with Chinese-Canadians

Demand marks shift in long-held tradition of the elderly living with their children

By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun, December 15, 2015

Rising demand for high-end seniors housing among Chinese-Canadians and Americans is breaking the cultural stereotype that all Asian seniors want to live with their children.

Vancouver-based Element Lifestyle Retirement says its Opal community in the Cambie and King Edward neighbourhood has been inundated by inquiries about the $90-million project even though construction hasn’t yet started.

“We are seeing tons of interest in Opal, and we feel bad because we have to tell them, ‘Sorry, we are not taking deposits yet,’” said Candy Ho, vice-president of Element. “I think part of it is because of the neighbourhood we are in, and it also shows (Chinese seniors) may be breaking a new barrier in the lifestyle they are choosing.”

The trend isn’t isolated. In July, Aegis Living launched the $50-million Aegis Gardens in the Seattle area, marketing its 110 units to Chinese seniors, including those in the Vancouver region. The facility features Tai-chi programs, Chinese calligraphy workshops, Mahjong game nights (in addition to bingo), and on-site Chinese chefs who prepare traditional dishes like barbecue pork buns and three-cup chicken to cater to specific tastes.

At the time of the launch, Aegis CEO Dwayne Clark said others were skeptical about the potential in the market, given cultural tendencies for Chinese seniors to stay with family. But Aegis’s first such facility built in Fremont, Calif. became one of the company’s most popular developments, which led to the one in Washington state.

Traditionally, Chinese culture emphasizes the elderly staying in the same household as their adult children. Multiple generations living under the same roof is often seen as the ultimate symbol of the Confucianist ideal of filial piety.

But David Chuenyan Lai, professor emeritus of geography and an adjunct professor of Asian studies at the University of Victoria, says that stereotype is outdated.

“That’s the wrong concept,” said Lai, who has long proposed the development of “economically integrated” communities where multiple generations live, eat and shop close to one another, instead of everyone living under the same roof.

“Many Chinese families are more or less integrated into Canadian society. Some stay together in one house because of cost … but it depends not on tradition, but rather incomes and resources.”


Many of these new seniors developments are more high-end than conventional seniors homes and are marketed as lifestyle experiences. Shuyu Kong, associate professor of the Asia Canada program at Simon Fraser University, said the trend isn’t confined to overseas Chinese communities. Costly seniors condos are popping up in wealthy cities like Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, and consumers are buying in despite the increased costs, she said.

Kong has not only observed the “independent Chinese seniors” phenomenon, she has lived it. Kong’s parents moved in with her soon after she arrived in B.C. in 2008. But they decided — as soon as they sold their apartment in Shanghai — that they would prefer living in a condo in Metrotown by themselves.

“They wanted more convenience, and not me having to drive them around,” Kong said. “They wanted to have their own lives if they could afford it … they (the elderly) are choosing to live by themselves.”

But she added the change in lifestyle does not mean the Chinese cultural focus on family has changed — rather it has adapted.

“Cultural values last a long time,” Kong said. “When you see new immigrant families from Mainland China, many like to stay together … Once people see different values, they do take on new ideas. But the value is still there — you still have parents buying homes for children for them to be close, to set up different things in their lives. That doesn’t change quickly or completely.”

That desire to live apart from — while still being close to — their children can be seen with the Opal development. Ho said one of the reasons it has attracted Chinese seniors is the location, which is minutes from Oakridge, South Granville and Kerrisdale — neighbourhoods where Chinese-Canadian families are increasingly taking root.

“Seniors like to stay in the same neighbourhood as their kids,” Ho said, noting Opal is open to all cultural groups, not just Chinese-Canadians.

It is also the reason Element designed Opal to be a “cross-generational” community, where stores and services will be catered not solely to the elderly, but to all demographics. In that way, the development would not only be a seniors community, but one where younger generations participate in everyday life — an aspect crucial for attracting the Chinese-Canadian elderly demographic.

Opal is awaiting final approval from the city and plans to start construction in Spring 2016, with a tentative opening date of late 2017/early 2018. Ho said the multi-generational concept will also make its way to a second development, dubbed Oasis, in Langley Township in the coming years.


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