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Come together

Shelley Gilliver from Summerset lets Nadia Shaw-Owens in on a vibrant and community-driven approach to retirement.

By Nadia Shaw-Owens

Summerset’s retirement village in Porirua, Wellington, has just hosted a spud competition.  The ugliest, the prettiest and the heaviest spud were all awarded a prize. “We have a slogan, 70 is the new 50, and it is really true — this is where life starts!” laughs Shelley Gilliver, Sales Manager for Summerset on the Landing. If potato pageantry is a little low-brow for your taste, Summerset also entertains with a beautician and hair salon, a bowling green, pool facilities and happy hour. “It’s often called a resort, and there’s always something on. We’ve had family members call and say ‘Oh, we’ve been trying to get hold of Mum, but she’s always out shopping, or at an event or playing cards’, and I love hearing that, because suddenly you’re among people from your own generation who have very similar backgrounds to you, and it’s like having a neighbourhood full of your friends. Really.”

Summerset, a network of villages across New Zealand, was founded in 1997 by John O’Sullivan having been utterly disheartened by the offering for his own grandmother’s retirement. O’Sullivan’s vision of creating a retirement community that residents are proud to call home has blossomed into 37 villages that offer the full works. When Gilliver was showing a couple through the village a few months ago, “Lynn was out there watering her garden with the hose and then Allen passed the road on his bike, and the lady said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just like the advertisement.’” 

Gilliver’s sales title doesn’t quite fit the bill — her passion and enthusiasm for guiding elderly into the new stage of their life is closer to that of a guidance counsellor or a life coach — likely due to Gilliver’s lack of interest in sales until she began the process of helping her mother select a retirement village. On the first tour of Summerset, Gilliver o”andedly said that the sales manager must have the best job on earth, to which they said, “Actually, there’s a role available…” 

Building trust and understanding is vital in her position — “it’s not really sales, it is more of a relationship” — so Gilliver begins with meeting those seeking retirement living over a cup of tea. The first conversations around planning retirement care can be painful. Social anxieties, health care and a desire for independence are common concerns that are discussed in Gilliver’s office. What if my health declines? What if I feel lonely? What if I want alone time? The sweet spot between valuing these concerns and kindly unfurling them is a zone that Gilliver delicately treads every day. 

“The key is keeping to the positives. The last thing that we want is to try and convince people to come in here that aren’t happy or aren’t ready. We’re not going to force things onto you that you don’t want.” 

You need to be ready to make the most of retirement living — but how do you know when you are ready? Gilliver says that the biggest tell-tale sign is when things that used to feel rewarding become more of a hindrance. When cooking dinner, doing the garden or driving starts to feel like a real chore, that’s when a retirement village’s assisted care can be life-changing. “It is incredibly satisfying to help guide someone into retirement. It’s the best part of my job. I really do get to see people get a new grasp on life, and then they flourish.”

A common stigma around retirement villages is that they are just for people at the very end of their life, but Gilliver is quick to shut this down.

When Gilliver was showing a couple through the village a few months ago, “Lynn was out there watering her garden with the hose and then Allen passed the road on his bike, and the lady said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just like the advertisement.’”

“People’s lives actually get more busy. One resident that’s been living here for about a year told me, ‘Shelley, I don’t remember laughing as much as I have since I started living here.’” With two degrees of separation in New Zealand, and even less if you retire in the same city you grew up in, it is also very common to come across old friends, neighbours, teachers and colleagues in your village. 

Gilliver is a treasure trove of heartwarming stories. She describes one woman whose husband passed away in the house they had shared for 60 years, and he had built himself. Prior to moving into the village, the woman spent her first few visits with Gilliver crying the entire time. But, now that she is settled, Gilliver describes her as the life and soul of the party, who enjoys regular visits from her son and daughter-in-law and grandson. The freedom of retirement living can’t be emphasised enough; it allows people to come together and experience true, quality time with each other. There’s no sheepish requests for your children to mow your lawns while they are over or to help you with moving the furniture — your visits are entirely at each other’s leisure. 

The detail and compassion in Gilliver’s words paint a picture of Summerset on the Landing as a family made up of staff, ambassadors, and 300 residents. It is all in the details — when you move in, Summerset pays for a housewarming; you can invite friends and family over for a morning tea to show them around. There is even a ‘Moving Specialist’, who provides suggestions to overwhelmed movers of what could be sold, what should be kept or what the family might like to take. 

Gilliver leaves us with this advice: “Don’t wait until it’s too late. I have worked at Summerset for almost two years, and I think almost every week I’ve heard people say we wish we’d moved in earlier.” 

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