Circa 2004. On a Sunday, one of my friends came home and took me to his farm on Siruvani Road, 2 kms away from Perur Pattiswarar’s Temple in Coimbatore. While sipping coconut water in that farm of 15 acres, which also had a coconut grove, he asked me if we could develop this farm into a real estate project?
After anlysing the pros and cons, I told him that the farm does not lend itself to a real estate project as it lacks social infrastructure like schools, colleges, hospitals etc nearby. He asked me what we could do with it, as farming was not remunerative since he was unable to devote time to it. I told him to give me some time to ponder and that I would revert to him in a few days if I come out with a workable alternative.
A few days after that, when my wife Chitra and I were returning from an Old Age Home run by Christian missionaries, which we used to frequent and spend time with the inmates and also support their requirements, I asked her, “ what will happen to us when we become old as our daughters would get married and God knew where they would settle down after their education?”
That question is asked by many of us as we age and find our children settling down in life, far away from where we parents live. We also realise that it would be incorrect for us to expect them to stay and take care of us at our old age. Neither is it fair nor practicable since we love and freedom and independence and do not want to keep moving with our children in their lives! More so if we have daughters since we are tradition bound not to live with our daughters after their marriage!
I said to myself, “why not create a retirement community in that farm of my friend?” An idea, which in 2004 was nascent in Coimbatore with only one such facility operational and that too very basic made many of my friends and fellow real estate developers looking at me skeptically and advising me that the implementation of this idea would be foolish!
I wrote a small paper expanding my idea and made a questionnaire. I sent it out to many of my friends and requested them to broadcast it through the Internet to get as many responses as possible. I got many and some sound advice also. While some felt that our Indian custom and tradition may prevent seniors to live in an old age home due the stigma attached to it since such homes are meant for destitute and that children would feel uncomfortable in their social circle if it were known that the parents lived in an old age home.
I therefore decoded to call it as “Comfort and Retirement Homes”. I had seen similar homes in Brisbane when I visited Australia in 2002. Thus was born Soundaryam Comfort Homes at Pachapalayam on Siruvani Road near Perur in Coimbatore. I modeled it after a mini cantonment since army cantonments have everything that one needs and so would my Comfort and Retirement Homes provide to its residents. Instead of Officers’ Mess, I called it Club House; instead of Medical Inspection or MI Room, I called it Medical Centre! I catered for all services – housekeeping, gardening, plumber, electrician, carpenter service (in a cantonment we have these skilled people from MES!), concierge and security, ambulance for emergency evacuation etc. I built a lifestyle that would prevent boredom and keep seniors active. The Club House had lounge, dining facilities, kitchen, library, reading room, indoor games facilities, gymnasium etc – exactly like army clubs or officers’ mess!
Soundaryam Comfort and Retirement Homes was to house only 48 families! My aim was to have a small colony of seniors who are like-minded and have common aims and aspirations and my wife and I could be part of this and we would be taken care of in our old age! But it was not to be. 48 villas became 90 and 90 became 130. The demand seemed to far exceed the availability and we spread to other cities.
In these 12 years, it has been a learning curve for Team Covai and I and we had to constantly upgrade to meet the expectations. What was good in 2004 is almost irrelevant today. I must admit that the seniors who believed in us and decided to be part of one large joint family helped us a lot with their wisdom and wise counsel.
We realised that only basic amenities like medical services was not enough. We needed to concentrate on wellness and care. Care for seniors as they aged was a major requirement. We needed to have Assisted, Memory and Palliative Care. We realised that the Western model would not suit Indian conditions and even in India many of the people living in different parts with different traditions, language, customs, lifestyle, food habits, social stigmas needed the model created by us to be tweaked. We realised the word “home” was disliked in the context of a community to house senior citizens. Hence we decided to call our creations as “Retirement Communities.”
We realised that while children were not in a position to look after their parents staying far away from them, the Indian tradition of concern for parents played a significant role in making parents to accept retirement communities. We realised that as one ages, the dependency on children for making decision-making increases. We realised that cost – both investment and recurring is an issue as most of the seniors made their retirement dwelling as their second home and will not sell their house to pay for the retirement dwelling! Even if they wanted to, the children did not permit that! And seniors with advancing age tend to become tight fisted. We realised that retirement planning by seniors is an important issue, which needed professional guidance.
We realised that our countrymen attached lot of importance to possession of property and it is a big emotional issue! We realised that we needed to innovate, change with the times and upgrade technology with the passage of time. We understood that systems, processes and Standard Operating Procedures and internal audits, checks and balances were very essential not only to give the assured quality of services and care to the seniors but also to scale our operations in many cities. We realised that availability of skilled and semi-skilled labour is going to become increasingly difficult and hence it was essential that we keep the staff motivated at all times to give off their best with passion and compassion.
There has never been a dull moment. Though Team Covai has 12 years of experience in crating and managing retirement communities, we cannot sit on our past laurels but need to think ahead and cater to the future. Unless we are able to constantly crystal gaze, we will not be able to come up to the expectations of the seniors who believe in us. That is the most important issue of concern for us – we can never afford to let the trust reposed in us by the senior citizens to be diluted. So help us God!