“As long as I’m enjoying what I can contribute to society, why stop?”
Don Ho, the 74-year-old Founder and President of Element Lifestyle Retirement Inc., isn’t ready to retire. It’s easy to understand why. He works (plays) in a beautiful, inspiring office with family and friends while doing the things that bring him joy.
“As long as I can keep making the lives of seniors better, I will continue,” he says.
Don and his daughter, Director and VP Candy Ho, are amiable and given to laughter. They treat each other with a deference born out of respect, and they absolutely love what they do. They are like kids describing their favourite toys – glowing as they describe their upcoming projects.
This morning, they sent in a zoning application for their largest, most ambitious project to date: The Oasis Retirement Community – a 17-acre project opposite the Langley Event Centre. The plans call for beautiful gardens, walkways, individual houses and high-rise buildings of up to 20 stories.
“It was very well received by the planner,” says an excited Don.
The Oasis Retirement Community will allow adult children to have their own apartment unit or a two- to three-bedroom house, which can accommodate a younger family with grandkids, while grandma and grandpa live just across a footbridge within walking distance.
“We call that ‘the soup’s distance concept,’” laughs Candy.
“Soup is very important to us!” replies Don with a grin.
“That’s what I do! I live about 10 steps away from Don,” says Candy.
“And visa versa,” quips Don. “When you are walking distance away, the soup is still so hot!”
“We feel the village will be extremely inviting. And it will allow for the full continuum of care, so people can age in place without having to move away.”
Don has an excellent track record providing desirable lifestyle choices for seniors and their families. As a matter of fact, he’s credited with pioneering the continuum lifestyles concept.
Upon arriving in Canada in 1983, he set to work as an architect and structural engineer. He did well creating and building condos. While he enjoyed this, he yearned to put down roots in his community.
“I began thinking I should build a hotel or an office tower that I could leave behind with a brand or a name.”
Then, in the early ’90s, his mother developed dementia and his father, who was still active, felt compelled to care for his wife. Don saw the impact of his father’s decision on his parents’ lives.
“My father decided to live with my mother in a nursing home. It wasn’t very inviting, but my father was good about it. He said ‘as long as your mother is looked after and we can still live together, I’m fine.’ But I felt badly for my father as he had to live with other sick people suffering in bed and losing their memory.”
“Kind of dampens the spirit,” Candy agrees.
“I didn’t think he should be forced into being a caregiver, while he was still able to pursue life, just because he was afraid his wife would be neglected,” says Don.
His parents’ situation prompted Don to look for a better solution. There wasn’t one. “So, I thought to myself, ‘if I can build things, why can’t I build something to accommodate today’s seniors?’”
That is how their flagship residence, the Crescent Gardens in White Rock came to be, and it was the first of its kind. They offered condos for more active seniors and independent living rentals for those who no longer wanted to be burdened with home ownership. And in order to make sure couples could continue living together as the aged, Don and his team added care services for the less-active seniors.
“At that time, there was not a continuum-of-care lifestyle choice for seniors in Canada,” says Candy. “Why isn’t there, we asked? It was the right thing to do.”
“The project was successful,” says Don. “We received overwhelming support.”
Assisted Living was a new concept, at the time, and Don was instrumental in forming BCSLA (BC Senior Living Association) because he and others could see the need to bridge the gap between fully independent living and complex care.
“At Langley Gardens, (their next project), we created a floor to cater to those in need of Assisted Living. Again, it was very well received.”
In 2002, government bureaucrats were encouraged by Fraser Health to examine their model.
“They thought it was a heck of a good idea,” laughs Don. “‘Why haven’t we thought of this?’ they said.” Until then, all care fell under the jurisdiction of a licensing body, which did not permit anything less than full complex care. Those requiring light care were visited in their homes by a nurse. Travel time made such practices inefficient. Cluster care in one building was much more efficient because it eliminated travel time.
“The government saw it would save money, if they allowed residential operators to deliver Assisted Living in care clusters,” says Don.
They invited Don to work with them to create policies and procedures for Assisted Living. The program’s only failing, in Don’s opinion, is the lack of understanding the public has about Assisted Living. Seniors often think that if they move into an Assisted Living residence with a nurse on staff, they will be able to stay there forever. Unfortunately, once you require assistance for more than two Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), you are told to go. When people have to move out, it can be devastating.
“When you are progressing towards needing complex care, it is the worst time ever to have to move,” Candy says. “A completely able person has a lot of stress when moving, so we feel forcing a senior to move at this time in their life is the wrong thing to do.”
“I hoped that by creating a full continuum of care we would solve living problems. It may not have attracted the best financial return,” laughs Don. “It is expensive because the licensing is rigorous. Fortunately, our stakeholders support our passion and our philosophy. They are investing in something meaningful, rather than just trying to get the best return on their cash.”
As so often happens though, when you do right by people, recognition and success follows. Even before the completion of their first project, all the units were sold and rented. Then, they started the plans for their second project – Langley Gardens. The mayor asked them to build another. “One of the best things I did was to invite you to build in Langley,” he told Don.
In November 2015, Don and Candy travelled to London, England to receive the award for Senior Focused Intergenerational Community Design Vision. They were first for their category out of 950 other competing residences.
While Don and Candy appreciate the recognition, their real measure of success are the invitations from residents to come visit. Besides being known for their dedication to excellence, their popularity may also stem from their willingness to go above and beyond to make sure their residents are happy.
In the early days, Don entertained residents by singing “Tiny Bubbles” in tribute to his Hawaiian namesake. Candy is a professional pianist and she played for residents at every opportunity.
“The residents loved her music so much,” says Don. “They were all seated an hour before she would arrive from UBC – all 150 of them.”
At that time, Candy was studying to go into medicine. She wanted to make lives better. It soon became apparent to her she could do exactly that by going to work for the family business.
“I always loved being with seniors,” she says. “Even when I was four years old, I would talk to family friends who were in their eighties for hours while the other kids were running around playing.”
Don has three daughters. His eldest and youngest both work with him.
“It’s a good thing because I never miss them and they never miss me,” laughs Don. “They enjoy what they do and they are totally independent in what they do. In the company, I never treat them as daughters.”
“I was happy because I saw [Candy’s] passion for this. I saw she really enjoyed the work. If you don’t enjoy the work, you’re just working for a living.”
“My dad is my life mentor, my business mentor and my friend, so it’s pretty easy working with him,” says Candy. “We have the same work ethic and values.”
“As long as my daughters know I’ve been doing business with full integrity, they support me,” says Don. “This is how I feel a senior should be living their retirement life. As a senior, you don’t want to sit in your lazy chair doing nothing. You want the next generation to believe in what you are doing – we support them and they support us.”
“I want my legacy to be that young people have a career they enjoy in taking care of seniors. A career that will make a difference in how seniors enjoy life. Seniors have worked so hard in their lives, it isn’t fair if no one looks after their interests.”
SNAPSHOT with Don Ho
If you were to meet yourself at age 20, what advice would you give yourself?
“As a senior aged over 70, I would advise myself (a 20 year old kid) that it is important to surround yourself with good friends to share ideas, ideals and to bounce off opinions.”
“Support your children in all aspects and model integrity and passion in life. Train them to be independent and self-sufficient; to have the highest self-esteem.”
“Never give up, because you know there are many people around you that understand and who will support you through tough times.”
“Learn from mistakes and grow stronger each time. Never blame other people for the mistakes made, because the decisions are made by you.”
Who or what has influenced you the most? Why?
“My parents… My parents were always kind and loving.”
What does courage mean to you?
“The ability to take risks as long as it doesn’t damage your reputation, but helps you to achieve goals.”
What does success mean to you?
“Success isn’t making a ton of money. To me, a successful person is one who has made a difference in the lives of others.”
FEBRUARY 2016 INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING