A spring in their step

Ahuzat Beit Hakerem is a retirement residence for the young of spirit.

As the city with the highest rate of poverty in the country, particularly among its elderly residents, the recent opening of a luxury retirement home in Jerusalem comes as somewhat of a surprise. "There are wealthy people in Jerusalem, of course. And these people want to have a rich lifestyle, so I'm not surprised they choose the Ahuza," says Ayala Lavie, former general manager of several retirement homes. "Today, people who have money want to live by luxury standards, and this particular place has turned into a kind of status symbol." Indeed, a quick glance around the lobby of Ahuzat Beit Hakerem reveals a less than typical retirement residence. There are no wheelchairs or walkers in sight, no signs of foreign caregivers spoonfeeding residents . A bustling activities list posted on a bulletin board further discloses the home's youthful ambience. And judging by the rate of sales - 260 apartments out of 320 sold in less than a year - it seems that Ahuzat Beit Hakerem is on to something. Indeed, after speaking to a few of the residents and the general manager, a common attitude emerges. Financial security aside, the main requirement for living there seems to be a relatively youthful and healthy appearance, and a vivacious spirit. Wrinkles, white hair, a discreet hearing device and mild memory loss may be tolerated, but an insatiable appetite for life is not negotiable. In short, a prospective resident best be a walking advertisement for the ideal senior citizen who is anything but old. Ahuzat Beit Hakerem opened about six months ago and is one of a chain of retirement residences built around the country in recent years by the Rubinstein Building Company. "The cost [of living here] varies," says Ahuzat Beit Hakerem general manager Oded Mor. "The apartments are not for sale. Tenants have to invest between NIS 1 million and NIS 3 million, depending on the size of the apartment [from two-and-a-half rooms to four rooms] and the number of occupants - whether it's an individual or a couple." During the first 12 years, this deposit depreciates by 2.5 percent per year. After those 12 years, the sum remains the same linked to the index, will not bear interest, and will go to the heirs. Besides that, the maintenance fees [including property tax and cleaning] fluctuate between NIS 4,000 and NIS 8,000 a month. A quick check with similar residences shows that many of them [there are 22 private retirement homes in Jerusalem] are not much cheaper. Whether it is in the form of a deposit or buying the apartments, the monthly maintenance fee is not much higher at Ahuzat Beit Hakerem [at most other residences, the sum is around NIS 3,500 to NIS 4,500]. What is certain is that most of the other retirement residences do not provide as much luxury and as many activities as Ahuza. "We provide total security, in-house healthcare, a round-the-clock nurse, an on-call doctor who is also here a few hours each day, basic furniture in the apartments and a great number of activities, including a spa, swimming pool, free coffee break, a library and much more," says Mor. In return, he adds, "our tenants enjoy their life and participate in all the activities offered." "It's true, at Ahuzat Beit Hakerem you won't see people in the lobby in wheelchairs or the like. But [in their defense] I must point out that it's a private institution, so they are entitled to propose whatever [requirements] they want. And second, at least they do propose other arrangements for those [residents] who no longer fit in [health-wise]," says Nathan Lavon, director of the pensioners' rights group Ken Lazaken. Residents of retirement homes "don't have to see elderly people in poor physical condition around them," he adds. "To be elderly today is absolutely not what it once was," says Mor. "People today are healthier and live longer." As for tenants who become ill and are no longer independent, Mor says: "We provide apartments on a different floor for elderly residents who become disabled. They can bring in their caregivers. We call it a private care department; in fact, it is very close to a siudi ward. "We do not send tenants elsewhere who become sick," say Mor. "But it is true that this is not our main purpose." A tour of one of the apartments reveals that, down to the smallest detail, no cost has been spared. The apartment is airy, spacious, well lit and cozy, with generous storage space. "Ahuza is a new concept in social living. This is not just another retirement residence that is more or less luxurious. It is a community," says tenant Marlin Levin, 86. "It's a place that strives to keep people active, not just living. Of course, no one forces you to join the activities, like the gym, the swimming pool and all the other things, but the concept is that you're here because you want to become part of this, not just stay in your apartment." "We're close to a shopping center. We brought in our stuff from our previous home," adds tenant Avraham Levy, 82. "For me and my wife it's a real life, not retirement. And on top of that, we enjoy full security here." "We hear about the things that happen to elderly people in the city; here we feel very secure. And I never feel alone. There's always some activity, someone to talk to, something to be part of," smiles Levin.