Healdsburg duo helps China prepare for giant wave of senior citizens
It makes for a pretty good tale why two guys who run a conspicuously lively old-folks residence in Healdsburg suddenly know so much about China’s struggle with its fairly new challenge to provide institutional housing and health care to tens of millions of its seniors.
Tony Fisher and Rob Matthews pinched themselves a few months back to stand in Chongqing, at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers, and watch earth-movers groom bare ground for the construction of a senior-citizen residential development the size of a small city.
“It was just surreal,” Fisher said.
The work site they beheld is envisioned as the eventual home to more than 22,000 elders unable to live with their children or grandchildren.
Twenty-two thousand. A number, it occurred to both Fisher and Matthews, directors of the Healdsburg Senior Living residence and care facility on Grove Street, that is about double the entire population of Healdsburg.
“The scale is mind-staggering,” Matthews said. He and Fisher had never seen anything like the massive and teeming Chongqing, known previously as Chungking.
Less a city than a region, Chongqing is a skyscrapered metropolis of about 9 million enveloped by vast suburbs and farmland home to an additional 20 million. By comparison, the entire population of California is 39 million.
Matthews and Fisher learned that plans for the privately-funded Chinese development for elders include 13 34-story residential towers, a lake and a geriatric-care hospital with 400 beds. At one point there in Chongqing, about 900 miles southwest of Beijing, Fisher whispered to Matthews, maybe half-joking, “I think we’re in over our heads.”
But the Chinese business people who’d brought them and two other Americans there were keen to hire them as advisers to help guide the creation of a concept quite novel to the world’s most populous nation: the maintaining of seniors outside the traditional home.
Fisher and Matthews said the message of the hosts who paid all their expenses and treated them like royalty was essentially this: Move to China, the sooner the better, and go to work for at least five years co-founding a huge project that ideally will provide elderly Chinese people a home and a level of care similar to that extended to residents of the 110-bed Healdsburg Senior Living.
Though the generosity of the compensation package made them gulp, the Americans politely declined. Instead, Fisher and Matthews and the third of the four visitors, Chuck Bloom of Portland, a lifelong friend of Fisher also engaged in elder care, offered to work as consultants to the mega-project.
Matthews is the executive director and Fisher the marketing director at the Healdsburg facility, which offers independent-living and assisted-living apartments, skilled nursing and care for seniors with cognitive impairment. Both said there are multiple reasons they couldn’t pull up stakes and move to China.
To start, Matthews said from an office at Healdsburg Senior Living, “My commitment is 100 percent to this place.”
He and Fisher said they told their Chinese hosts that, on weekends and after work, they would consult on the design and operation of the senior-care facilities coming to Chongqing. The developers will make the Sonoma County residents’ efforts worth their while: Both will be paid $300 per hour.
As nice as the money will be, the Healdsburg duo said the exciting part is the historic part: China is very new to the field of outside-the-family elder care, and it’s momentous to be asked to help create a living environment that is not sterile and isolating.
Fisher and Matthews first met the Chinese business people when a delegation from Chongqing toured Healdsburg Senior Living early last fall.
The visitors were reviewing models of residences and care as they prepared to create some of the millions of units of senior housing that China must produce. A cultural tidal wave is building in the communist country as its one-child per couple rule, the growth of working, urban families and other factors leave legions of seniors without family members with whom they can live.
The aging of China creates challenges almost too great to comprehend: There are projections that within about the next 30 years, the number of Chinese people age 60 and older will surpass 400 million. The current population of the United States: about 323 million.