Arriving at my destination on a wet Wednesday morning, I am greeted by a gentleman with a large umbrella who shields me from the rain as I make my way from the cab to the high-ceilinged lobby.
Inside, a smiling concierge takes my suitcase and I am immediately aware that a valise from Louis Vuitton would be altogether more appropriate than my slightly scuffed John Lewis luggage. The feeling of disorientation is acute. I have come for a recce and a one-night sleepover, but what exactly is this place that operates with all the services and amenities of a luxury hotel (think Claridge’s, no exaggeration) and has the feel of a private members’ club (think Soho House, in terms of coolness)?
How is it possible that Auriens, as it is called, is neither a hotel nor a club, but what we ordinary, common folk might call a retirement home. The kind of place I’m now eligible for, age-wise if not pocket-wise.
Not that the term ‘retirement home’ would ever pass the marketing team’s lips in this five-star environment. No, this is the ultimate expression of what’s now known as ‘luxurious later-life living’.
Auriens is neither a hotel nor a club, but what people may call a retirement home. Linda Kelsey, 70, (pictured) explains that it is luxurious, upscale living for the over 65s
And yet the residents I meet, currently ranging from their late 70s to 91, don’t even try to dodge the age bullet, and are quite willing to pronounce how very ancient they are. This may well be because they are so enjoying themselves that they don’t give a damn about the terms used to describe where they live.
While Auriens is unique — for the sheer scale of its opulence, not to mention the cost (rental starts at £13,750 a month) — the phenomenon of upscale living for the over-65s is growing apace.
Currently lagging behind the United States, as well as Canada and Australia, this is one UK industry set to go stratospheric, despite the costof-living crisis.
One study has revealed that the cost of living crisis is forcing pensioners out of retirement and back to work.
Not only are one in five people in England and Wales 65 or older, for the Baby Boom generation, who have benefited from the increase in property values, there is more cash around for downsizing or at least finding homes more suitable to changing circumstance without sacrificing comfort.
According to Knight Frank’s Senior Housing Annual Review, investment in senior developments this year alone is set to reach a record £3billion.
Frankly, at the age of 70, the idea of a retirement home, whether it’s deluxe or one I can actually afford, has zero appeal.
Linda relaxing by the swimming pool and the sauna with Himalayan salts emitting from the walls
The notion of being sequestered away with a bunch of oldies feels akin to being sentenced to end your days on a cruise ship you are never going to disembark from, in the company of fellow passengers you probably have nothing in common with.
Would my stay at Auriens confirm or confound my prejudices? Or is there anything to be learned from Auriens that might trickle down from the millionaires to us mortals?
Auriens has 56 one and two bedroom apartments available for rent rather than sale, and so far it’s just under half full. Still an opportunity then to nab an apartment. It’s a mere stone’s throw from King’s Road in London, a glamorous shopping and dining paradise and handy if you’re still on the sprightly side.
As I walk along the corridor towards the apartment allocated to me for the night, I take in the original prints by 1960s super-snapper Terry O’Neill which line the walls, black-and-white portraits of icons of the era including Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Richard Burton in a bath cap.
Upscale living for the Boomer generation is growing apace
No expense spared on the art then, as you might expect, for the people who live here have all experienced the heady times these portraits conjure up, coming as many of them do from the worlds of big business, fashion, art and advertising, and with sufficient millions to spend their final years in the lap of luxury.
The huge, gleaming marble and mosaic bathroom in my apartment is twice the size of mine at home. But I am almost grateful for a moment of reality when I realise the loo is leaking slightly at the back.
My own loo at home has the same problem. The difference is that after a week I’m still waiting for a plumber; at Auriens no sooner have I picked up the phone to maintenance than the problem is resolved.
My first gasp is reserved for the kitchen. One thing oldies aren’t encouraged to do anywhere is get on a step-ladder to reach the top shelf in case they lose their balance. Here you don’t have to. At the press of a button the top-tier cupboard lowers toward the work top so you can simply reach in rather than reach up.
Then there’s the dishwasher — a top-loader, again to avoid accidents as well as the tricky business of bending down only to realise your back has gone into spasm.
Linda in the theatre at Auriens, which residents are able to book via the concierge service at the home
And most comforting of all, a nurse-call button by the bed: press at any time of day or night (no naff red cords here) and, in minutes, help will be on its way. As one 80-something resident tells me later, laughing dryly as she does, ‘Someone calls me every morning first thing, just, I think, to make sure I’m still alive!’
In this alternate universe where money is no object, a retirement home is beginning to look like something to aspire to rather than dread.
And yet, I can’t help feeling that it represents a shutting down — cloistering me in a space for old folk only, when I still want to be part of a vibrant, all-age community as I am at present.
One thing you wouldn’t be encouraged to do if you moved to Auriens is rest up. Every new resident gets a health and wellbeing assessment with wellness director and personal trainer Gideon Remfry who, alongside physiotherapist Holly Limbrick, will sort you out as far as good nutrition and exercise are concerned.
After a finger prick blood test, to assess cellular stress and antioxidant protection scores, as well as body composition analysis, I am advised on tweaking my diet and given a resistance training programme to increase strength and muscle mass. You can have one-onone personal training (extra, of course) or join group aqua classes or a seated exercise session for free.
Frankly the idea of a retirement home, deluxe or not, has zero appeal…but this could change my mind
To be honest the swimming pool and the sauna with Himalayan salts emitting from the walls are looking more tempting right now than a workout in the well-equipped gym where I spot an elderly chap cheerfully practising boxing jabs. It occurs to me that in a place like this you could actually get fitter rather than succumb to decline, something surely less swanky outfits could learn from.
After a delicious lunch of gnocchi and salad made by an ex-Savoy head chef (while feeling grateful I don’t yet need to make use of the specially designed stands next to the table where you discreetly stash your walking stick), I find myself worrying about what to wear for the pre-dinner soiree in the library.
There’s a piano recital on the 1929 Steinway, a classical medley provided by a talented graduate of the Royal College of Music, Ana Bursac.
Gosh there’s a lot going on here, including singing and painting classes, and there’s only just time before dinner for a glass of champagne in the glamorous bar they refer to as ‘the speakeasy’. And absolutely no time to catch a movie in the Art-Deco-style cinema where residents choose the film they want to see while enjoying nibbles and cocktails.
On the other hand, if you want to go to the theatre you can ask the concierge to book it for you; if you fancy having dinner delivered to your room you can just ring downstairs and order from the menu. Feel like doing some shopping round town but can’t be faffed with getting transport? The Auriens car and chauffeur, at your service ma’am.
Despite the upbeat atmosphere, the thing I keep remembering is the rage I felt on reaching my 70th when I started receiving leaflets from purveyors of retirement homes, like Elysian Residences (with properties in Stanmore, Sevenoaks, Berkhamsted and Tunbridge Wells) who wanted to lure me in with a champagne drinks reception. I had no desire to be singled out and categorised because of my age.
Inside one of the Auriens flats, which Linda said was grand and incredibly large. It was also very luxurious
Why wouldn’t they just leave me alone and stop reminding me of how old I’d become?
I suppose what most of us want as we age is to retain our dignity and independence, and letting go of that is scary.
If you’re like me and used to being fully independent, and not at all used to butlers and housekeepers and valets on tap, it’s easy to find all this pampering a little cloying.
The loss of complete autonomy is, of course, one of the chief drawbacks to all retirement homes, and no matter how high-end the service is, I feel it here too.
I don’t want to live under any watchful eye, no matter how benign. And I do think I’d feel the pressure to look well-groomed all the time in case I got sniffy looks from my co-residents.
It’s easy to find all this pampering a little cloying
It’s why those of us still young enough to be in denial of the real health issues (both physical and mental) as we proceed through our 70s and into our 80s, would rather stay put in our creaking but beloved homes, cracking lame jokes about Zimmer frames and stair lifts rather than face up to what could become the reality any time in the next few years.
My retirement dream (when I was young) was always to get together with friends in a kind of giant commune, convert a manor into separate units with some shared living space, and pile in with friends and hopefully my sister.
But it is just that, a dream, because when it comes to the possibility of doing it, most people don’t even begin to agree on their requirements, have different tastes and different budgets and are more than likely to fall out horribly before contracts are even exchanged. And then what happens when your friends start dividing into those who need care, leaving those who don’t as the carers?
The truth is, and I suspect like many, many others, I’m not planning at all for when my own home might become less manageable with its stairs and the constant maintenance required of a Victorian house.
My sister and brother-in-law, too, now 73 and 76 respectively, have no thoughts of foregoing their four-storey town house, banking on their good health and luck for the foreseeable future. Denial, I suppose, is what it’s all about, until the watershed moment.
For Auriens resident Josiane Woolf, that moment came when, after nursing her husband for the last four months of his life, and spending Covid in isolation, she felt painfully lonely.
‘I was married 58 years,’ she told me, ‘and yet old friends stopped contacting me. And then, during Covid, I could only meet my kids outdoors for a walk.
‘This is the best thing I’ve done. When I arrived I had just two friends, now I have seven.’ She smiles over at her new pals.
For another resident, John Blackburn, 88, a former art director in advertising who founded a successful design company, the trigger was a bad fall. ‘This place is my Shangri La. As long as I’m here I remain young. If I leave I feel I might revert back to my true age.’
I talk, too, to Paulene Stone, a flame-haired supermodel of the 1970s, now a pixie-cropped blonde of 81, still exquisitely elegant in cream cashmere and sporty Zara trousers. Although temporarily wheelchair-bound after fracturing both kneecaps after a fall, she remains upbeat about her decision to sell her Pimlico home.
Covid loneliness and more particularly a concerned and persuasive daughter were catalysts for moving to Auriens.
The truth is, I’m in denial about the real issues of old age
‘For the first month I thought why on earth did I do this? I even felt shy about going down to the restaurant for breakfast,’ she says. ‘Then one day I was lugging groceries from M&S, came through the door and said to myself, “Thank God I’m home”.’
For some of the already frail residents, carers can be brought in from a recommended agency, or you could, in a two-bed apartment, have one living with you.
And so after my brief stay I was almost sold. Auriens could change my mind, at any rate. Loneliness, frailty, feeling unsafe, a desire for community — no matter how many millions you have stashed in the bank, we are all human, we all get old. Companionship and caring staff on hand who feel like friends are things no amount of money can buy.
And yet from the concierge to the waiters, I couldn’t help but notice on what friendly, chatting terms they all seemed to be with the residents. I guess they’re trained that way and are paid a lot better than staff in an actual care home would be.
A retirement home? Instead of never, it’s more of a one-day maybe. Now, come the tipping point, I feel a little better prepared for the big decision. I just need to start seriously saving.