NEW YORK >> Bill Morin, 82, a retired CEO, was not happy with his run-of-the-mill nursing home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The elevators were always broken, his small room faced a brick building and he needed permission every time he wanted to go out.
So last year, during the height of the pandemic, he traded up to the Watermark at Brooklyn Heights, a new luxury “senior living community” housed in a former 16-story hotel from the 1920s that evokes an Italian palazzo, with an indoor swimming pool and a small army of caregivers to anticipate his needs.
Morin’s son, Tim, who lives nearby and suggested the Watermark to his father, is amazed by the opulence.
“This is never what I would have envisioned assisted living for my aging parent to look like,” said Tim Morin, president of an executive coaching firm. “It’s the nicest building he’s ever lived in. And he lived in a nice co-op in Murray Hill for 30-something years.”
His father would concur. Relaxing at the Watermark’s rooftop lounge with sweeping views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline, Bill Morin said, “Take a look around you. The ambience here is fantastic. The chef comes out and asks, ‘Was that meal good enough?’ I didn’t even know the chef at the other place.”
The Watermark is one of several luxury assisted-living homes that have sprung up in the past few years, especially in places like New York City with its many affluent retirees with upmarket tastes and cosmopolitan demands.
These upscale retirement homes cater to the affluent end of “the silver tsunami” — the wave of aging baby boomers who are still socially and culturally active, and who have become accustomed to a certain quality of life. The vibe at these places is less dreary nursing home and more five-star wellness resort.
During a recent tour of Watermark, Rocco Bertini, its executive director, pointed out “the several F and B rooms on the property” — hospitality-speak for food and beverage — including the main 140-seat dining room with plush seating and double-height ceiling; a “European-style” cafe with freshly baked pastries; smoothie bar; and a Mediterranean-style gastropub with a pizza oven.
“What we’re selling is a lifestyle,” Bertini said.
Inspir, another luxury retirement home, brims with opulent finishes and luscious amenities. The soaring, light-filled lobby features a grand piano, a green onyx wall and a Seguso chandelier. A concert by Yo-Yo Ma at the nearby 92nd Street Y streams to the in-house TV channel. The 17th-floor “sky park” has a wraparound terrace, bistro and lounge with a fireplace.
One resident, Marilyn Snyder, describes it as “the QE2 on the East River.”
Luxury comes at a high cost. Monthly fees at the Watermark range from $8,295 for studio apartments to $20,295 for a two-bedroom. That does not include a one-time membership fee ($50,000 for independent living, $20,000 for assisted living and memory care).
Fees at Inspir start at $13,500 a month and include room and board, a concierge and special events and programs. Medical care is extra. A penthouse starts at $29,750 a month.
By contrast, the median cost for assisted living in the United States is about $4,000 a month, according to Genworth Financial, an insurance firm. And Medicare isn’t footing the bill at these “private pay” facilities.
But the Watermark may also be the easiest exclusive club in New York to get into: A year after opening in October 2020, it had just 30 residents (capacity is 275). The common spaces were empty; the solicitous staff stood around a bit aimless.
The 215-unit Inspir was slightly more bustling, with roughly 60 residents so far. The pandemic’s devastating toll on nursing homes have no doubt posed a challenge.
Tim Mullaney, editor of Senior Housing News, a trade publication, said places like Inspir and the Watermark are promoting “the idea of affinity rather than exclusivity” — that is, to live among like-minded people.
David Freshwater, chairman of Watermark Retirement Communities, said giving seniors three squares and meeting their basic living needs, as many nursing homes have done for the World War II generation, is not going to cut it for more demanding boomers.
“Boomers … don’t want to be entertained so much as engaged,” he said.
To that end the Watermark has a 16-seat movie theater and an art gallery. A recent exhibit, “Not Another Second,” told “the stories of 12 LGBT+ seniors and the years they lost not living their authentic selves,” according to the show’s website. Inspir offers a class in memoir writing, meditation and other forums for self-actualization. At another luxury facility, Atria West 86 in Manhattan, Billie Jean King is the “well-being coach,” providing residents the glow of celebrity.
Perhaps the strongest concession to boomer vanity is how these rich retirement residences sell a vision of wellness and renewal and avoid any mention of aging and mortality.
By adopting the look and language of hospitality (at the Watermark, help getting dressed is called a “discreet service”), keeping residents busy with cultural and personal enrichment, and obscuring medical services, these members of the rock ’n’ roll generation don’t feel they are in the old folks’ home. If not for the red pull cords in the showers and at bedsides, residents could fool themselves into thinking they were forever guests at a luxury resort.
Snyder, the Inspir resident, said the decision to move from her Upper East Side apartment into assisted living was not an easy one. A former actor known professionally as Maggie Burke, she still remembers visiting her grandmother in a dreary nursing home with “a little cot bed and rather crude facilities.” A tour of Inspir, not far from her old apartment and favorite restaurants, changed her mind.
“I decided I would get good health care here and also live in a very luxurious setting,” she said.
Back at the Watermark, Morin said his one-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with its kitchenette, marble shower and tasteful furniture reminds him of the finest hotels, “but better,” he said, because he’s a resident. The cost is largely covered by a long-term care policy he took out ages ago.
“I’m a lucky dog,” he added. “I went to four other homes before I came here, OK? This is paradise.”