The gleaming structure at 55 East Pearson is a boon to the skyline of Chicago. It is architectural love at first sight. My first reaction is to think “I want to live there” then you see it is senior housing. That gives less appealing thoughts. Senior living typically involves sterile environments that offer little to make one feel happy about aging. Aging isn’t pretty without the deep pockets of Cher so one can face 70 looking like 40. As my retired, 90-year-old first-grade teacher once told me while shuffling her way to the bathroom with an attendant: “Aging sucks.“
Many seniors would say they don’t want to be an albatross on their kid’s lives. This also translates to “I don’t want to give up my independence” or “Hell if I want to live with my son-in-law.” What I saw in my own parents was the struggle to keep independent. It becomes difficult to do the things one used to take for granted. Walking out to pick up a gallon of milk becomes something that one dreads. It’s a catch 22. It starts not doing short errands using time as an excuse. One soon grows into becoming reclusive. Face it: carrying that gallon of milk and laundry detergent from the grocery store doesn’t get any easier with age. Driving becomes scary but looming is the feeling of being vulnerable as one walks down the street. Some would say “it’s not fun being the oldest person in the room. People look at you like you are invisible.“ For many, along with the struggle to be independent, the growing amount of dependency, and reduced energy levels comes a feeling of being isolated.
After breaking ground in 2006, the paint was barely dry at the Clare when the Chicago housing market crashed. The 55-story high-rise was built by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago Service Corporation to attract the growing number of aging baby boomers. 90% of the building’s 248 units had deposits put on them as the market sputtered and sank. Seniors looking to retire found it difficult to sell their existing homes. They lost significant savings in the financial markets. Within two years, the building was sold at auction. Just 80 of the 248 units being sold. What was originally built for $270 million was sold at auction for the closing price of $55 million.
Sold to Senior Care Development LLC, unit prices were slashed as much as 70% while an additional investment of over 6 million was put into additional upgrades and beautification. This place now shines and is humming along with an increased number of residents. The occupancy of the building is now over 98% and with a waiting list for larger units.
“Our goal has always been to listen to the needs of The Clare’s residents and many of our renovations incorporate suggestions and ideas from the residents themselves,” says Kyle Exline, Executive Director of The Clare. “Residents at The Clare are full of life and we want all of our space to reflect their busy, active lifestyles.”
The Clare aims to deliver the most comfortable, quality care and amenities for all residents. There are two distinct areas to the Clare. The condo units where most of the residents live. The second area is what is called The Terraces. These are the supportive living environments that offer a variety of services. This includes rehabilitation services, memory support, skilled nursing care, and assisted living. This area runs the full spectrum of on-site health care and medical needs. What I found interesting is how it helps couples maintain independence as well as closeness. Many times a partner will fall, break a hip, or needs medical assistance. This leaves the other spouse alone and scared in a house or apartment. The Clare’s setup allows the partner to live in their own space while the injured spouse is convalescing. The two people may be separated but still together under one roof with easy access to one another. Conversely, a single person may not want to leave their home if they need a nursing facility. This is an alternative. There is a long-term plan to keep them in their home as their life changes or needs change.
Aside from attending to the physical needs of the residents, the Clare keeps its residents involved. They offer a variety of spiritual services on-site as well as other secular or physical activities like yoga. One perk that caught my eye was the driving/livery service. Need a ride to the symphony or opera? Not a problem. Need a ride to and from a doctor’s appointment? The driver is at your service, and there are parking spaces for those that still like to drive — but I can be Miss Daisy. Many of the residents that currently live in the Clare used to call downtown Chicago home. Most have lived within two miles of their new home. There is an enormous comfort factor in that they didn’t’ lose their friends or connections.
When the new owners took over the building, they added additional features that take the Clare to the next level. The renovations focused on reorganizing the main entrance on the ground level, expanding a 9th-floor Bistro Café from a small self-service area to a larger, full-service, casual dining experience. It more than doubled in size. Adjacent to the dining room is a lovely rooftop garden allowing residents to take in the beauty of the gardens and Chicago skyline. They also added a convenient grab-and-go area for general convenience that offers pre-made sandwiches, salads, and coffees for residents that want to book out early for a morning walk.
One of the three dining facilities of the Clare is the 53rd-floor dining room. The renovations to this area included opening up the kitchen to make it more inclusive in the dining experience. Residents can talk with the chef as well as learn from them as their meals are prepared. Chef Hagop Hagopian, The Clare’s Executive Chef, leverages the space to create unique dining experiences several times a week. The focus is on gourmet food and fine wines. This is an entirely new, luxurious dining option for residents in senior living.
“If someone wants to watch as we prepare their food and ask questions, I am more than happy to help them. I have taught residents to make all kinds of things in their kitchens like macarons, lamb, or sushi. Many love to come and watch. They like to learn how to do it then try making a dish at home in their units. Many times, I learn from them as well. I very much enjoy the people who live here,” said Chef Hagop Hagopian.
When one thinks of institutional food for seniors, it’s hard to imagine anything with flavor. Oatmeal, apple sauce, and stuff that can be gummed usually come to mind. This isn’t the case. Chef Hagopian is a first-generation American from a family of Armenian descent. He gained recognition as a Leading Chef by the renowned Les Amis Escoffier Committee. He is also a skilled ice carver trained in Matsumoto, Japan. His ability to capture beauty and presentation is shown to perfection in his ice carving. These skills translate into his daily practices in the kitchen. His food is stunning culinary masterpieces on a plate.
Hagopian searches for the freshest local ingredients and then builds his menu around seasonally available produce, meat, and fish. Hagopian is always looking for ways to engage with residents including hosting cooking classes for residents of The Clare. He prefers cooking with light, flavorful ingredients that allow fresh flavors to shine through. Shying away from creams or heavy sauces, Chef Hagopian uses ingredients such as quinoa, wheat berries, and Swiss chard and incorporates a variety of fresh grains in his recipes. He is on track with the latest in food AND wine trends. It may be senior living, but this place is not dry. The wine does flow.
From a financial standpoint, this place is a bit of a hidden gem — and here’s why. From a financial standpoint, moving in makes sense. There is a fixed rate for a monthly service fee regardless of what services are needed — so skilled nursing, assisted living and independent living are relatively the same cost as a person moves along the continuum of aging. Here’s the kicker. That lump sum payment is usually 90% refundable. So when the person leaves the community and the apartment is resold, the estate typically gets 90% what the senior originally paid. Clare management doesn’t think of itself as a typical retirement community as they consider themselves as a mixture of luxury condominium living, a retirement community, and a high-end hotel. The services include housekeeping, on-call maintenance, livery, full-service concierge, and all of that is included in the monthly service fee. The food service works like a dorm with a spin down balance. Seniors getting food credits that they can choose to do anything they want with.
“We’re thrilled with the result of the renovations. It is a great improvement to our common spaces for everyone to more fully enjoy,” says long-time resident Sheila Rock. “What could be more beautiful than sitting on the 53rd floor, enjoying your morning coffee? Just look at that magnificent view.”
I have to agree with her. I was truly impressed with the Clare. It took me back to the original thought of when I first saw the building going up. In poking around and talking to residents, I wanted to delve a little more deeply into how they felt about aging and living in senior housing.
The responses I got from residents were direct and to the point. When asked about aging, some would say it was not fun. For a long time, it was a struggle to make decisions. With regards to living at the Clare, responses were blunt. These are some really happy people. They feel connected and vital as they age. For them, it was the best decision they ever made for themselves. Far from sitting in a corner waiting to die, these folks are living life to the fullest. They are taking advantage of all the amenities that the Clare offers. It’s not like retiring as much as it is living on a luxury cruise ship or staying at a very nice resort. The place doesn’t feel like senior living as it feels more like the Ritz Carlton. Many of the people I talked to were exceedingly happy in that the place instantly felt like home. People were unabashedly happy — no... insanely happy.... kinda like “what-are-they-putting-in-the-coffee Happy“ about this place. They felt it helped them to live a connected life as they walked through retirement. And surprisingly — it made me happy for them. The place had such a joyous vibe that is unlike so MANY senior living places. These seniors were ready for anything. They can maintain independence no matter what life shoves at them. A huge burden was eliminated. With that gone, the stress was also gone. These people were truly content and it showed. To be honest — I was a little jealous. This party is going on and it’s probably the best place I can think of living, but I am just too young to sit at the big kids’ table.
Interested in seeing the Clare or finding out more information? I sincerely encourage you to go and see it for yourself. It is worth checking out if you are looking to make a move into retirement. For more information or to schedule a tour visit www.theClare.com.