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Berwick House founder is building better homes for seniors

Gordon Denford always knew he would turn his hand to building a better seniors’ home.

Gordon Denford always knew he would turn his hand to building a better seniors’ home.

He knew it in the 1960s after seeing that his mother, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and other residents of a local care home were left in wheelchairs to while away time in a cold lobby.

He knew it after he built Summergate Village on the Saanich Peninsula in 1978 and watched seniors move in looking for a feeling of community.

And he knows it now having built Berwick House Retirement Communities in Victoria, Kamloops, Comox and Nanaimo, with a sixth opening this month in Campbell River.

The 87-year-old Denford, who founded Denford Construction Management and Berwick House, characterizes the traditional old folks home as a warehouse for seniors and maintains that residences can comfort as well as house seniors.

His goal was to eliminate the stigma of the retirement home by establishing residences with a sense of harmony, comfort and familiarity to allow seniors to make the transition from their own homes.

Denford’s first experience building for seniors came in 1978 with Summergate Village, a 245-home community designed for early retirees — people who would split their time between the Saanich Peninsula and Arizona.

“They didn’t show up,” Denford said. “Instead, it was older people, widows, single people around 75.”

What those people saw was a neighbourhood of single homes, with a community centre that offered a place to connect and meet their neighbours, he said.

“We sold that development out in two years,” Denford said. He remembers telling his son, Chris, that they might want to start thinking about combining the idea behind Summergate into one building and providing a care component.

That was the start of Berwick House. The company’s first home, opened in Gordon Head in 1989, recently underwent a $6-million renovation to incorporate innovations in care and comfort to bring it up to date. “Everything we’ve learned goes into the new buildings, and what we’ve learned along the way goes back into the older buildings,” said Chris Denford, now CEO of Berwick. He noted there’s been a focus on expanding food choices and providing more fitness facilities. “It’s about not being satisfied with the status quo.”

To that end, each of Berwick’s homes are built around the basic principle of independent living and each building is custom designed to suit its surroundings. Berwick in Comox, for example, boasts a marine theme. Kamloops is more arts-and-crafts style tucked into the mountains.

The newest homes at Royal Oak and Campbell River offer features such as theatres, pubs or lounges, full dining rooms and casual dining options, recreation facilities and gardens as well as on-site care.

Denford notes as a new generation of seniors comes along there are new expectations for their retirement experience and that means changing with the times.

The last Berwick House was opened in 2012 at Royal Oak in Saanich and is the template future Berwick residences will be measured by. The $30-million Campbell River home, the largest building in that city, will open with 80 of its 133 suites spoken for this fall.

Victoria city Coun. Chris Coleman, who has known the Denfords for years, said the Berwick model has made a huge difference both in the lives of seniors and on the community as a whole. “What they do, they do brilliantly. They address a specific need in seniors housing and they do it exceptionally well, but it’s not a silver bullet that addresses all the needs,” he said, noting Berwick tends to suit a more affluent group of seniors.

However, Coleman said Berwick’s developments show what can be done.

“It gets others to aspire to that and it puts pressure on government-supported facilities to be improved and I think we’ve seen the manifestation of that,” Coleman said, noting changes at senior residences such as Mount St. Mary in Victoria. “Places have upped their game and are providing outstanding service.”

Despite an aging population, seniors homes aren’t necessarily a growth industry, Denford said.

“The boomers are years away. I don’t believe they are coming for at least another 15 years. You can build a big home, but you won’t fill it with boomers,” said Gordon.

He added that generation is also more independent and more active and will “put off the decision” to opt for a retirement home.

When they started Berwick, the average age of a resident was 80. Now it’s 86. Since 2008, seniors residences have been dealing with a population gap caused by the two world wars.

“Around then, we knew we were going into a period of time when there were fewer seniors,”’ Denford said. “That coincided with them living longer and postponing the decision, so we had to prepare ourselves for vacancies of 20 per cent.”

Chris Denford said that plays into their decision of when to build new homes.

“Our plans are to build more, but we are pretty cautious and we will only go into a community where we see a significant need — and even then we are fussy about the site,” he said, adding it’s a five-year process from the time they choose to look at a site to actually building a home.