Local entrepreneur builds world’s best retirement home

Starting an entirely new concept such as Livewell from scratch required a particularly determined pioneer. Fortunately, Jimmy has deep entrepreneurial roots.
Jimmy Hanekom
Livewell Suites

Jimmy Hanekom talks about the home for dementia sufferers that he started two years ago with a slightly raised voice. Not because he is passionate about it. He clearly is, but the reason he is speaking loudly is that he has to compete with a raucous drumming session under way across the beautifully kept garden on the stoep of the Livewell Suites in Somerset West.

Jimmy-Hanekom-January-2014Wild applause and whoops of joy follow a particularly fast rendition of Kumbaya, before the group of residents and their carers launch into My bonny lies over the ocean.

“Research shows three things really help dementia sufferers: music, children and animals,” explains Jimmy. The drum session leader is a regular visitor to Livewell, one of many service providers who keep the residents and day-care visitors occupied with exercise, arts, gardening, baking, croquet, bowling, movies, trips to the beach, woodwork, games, and needle work, among other things.

“Here, you won’t find a little circle (of old people) sitting like this,” says Jimmy, hanging his head to one side in the cliched image of a demented geriatric.

There is indeed nothing of the typical old-age home – let alone a dementia ward – about Livewell, which was named best retirement home in the world at the 2013 International Property Awards in London last month. No empty, clinical hallways with lonely people locked in dark rooms.

The rooms at Livewell are cosy, filled with personal furniture and belongings, and are all within safe and comfortable reach of the communal areas, which are abuzz with activity. Companionship is emphasised just as much as nursing care, and it is the programme of community volunteers who spend regular time with the residents that truly sets it apart from other dementia facilities. It changes the lives of both the volunteers and the Livewell residents for the better, says Jimmy.

The extraordinary nature of Livewell may have been one of the reasons for its recognition as the world’s best, but it has also presented the greatest difficulty that Jimmy had to overcome in starting the business. It is the first and only stand-alone dementia retirement facility in the country, and he found only two examples internationally that he wanted to emulate – one in Singapore and the other in the UK.

His peers in the property-development industry were highly sceptical of its viability. It is one thing to add a dementia unit to a retirement village where it shares costs and draws on a pool of existing residents, but how do you convince a family to entrust their parent to an unproven concept? Were there enough people willing and able to pay for the high level of care that the concept proposed, especially since the collapse of the property market had ravaged the wealth of many retired people?

And financiers worried that, should the project fail, it would be impossible to evict the vulnerable residents to auction off the building.

Starting an entirely new concept such as Livewell from scratch required a particularly determined pioneer. Fortunately, Jimmy has deep entrepreneurial roots. He started his first business in Grade 8, renting portable toilets for construction sites, sold it in matric as a going concern, and went on to study as a chartered accountant.

There were times when he wondered whether his studies, and his subsequent specialisation in investment management, had not killed every last bit of entrepreneurship in him. He found it excruciatingly “one-dimensional”, and soon fled as far as he could from the investment management industry by taking a job as project manager of a low-cost housing project. He quickly rose in the property sector, and by the time he reached thirty he headed up the retirement-village division of a R100m property company. With no prospect of share ownership in sight, however, he decided to step out on his own, with the pledge of angel funding from Alan Knott Craig junior, former head of iBurst and Mxit, whom he knew socially.

While researching the viability of an idea for a retirement project in Stellenbosch, a nursing matron at a retirement home first planted the seed of what became Livewell. The real urgent need, she said, was a specialist facility for dementia. General retirement projects and frail care facilities find it very difficult to deal with the condition. Confusion, anxiety and depression is common, and communication becomes increasingly difficult as the disease progresses. Retirement facilities usually set up a separate section for the dementia sufferers, and a gate soon goes up, behind which the inmates fade away in boredom, loneliness and despair.

The more Jimmy researched the subject, the more convinced he became that she was right.

Setting up such a high-end, specialist facility, however, would require major financial surety before anyone would entrust the life savings of their aged parents to it. The prominent business family of financier Paul Harris backed the idea, which suddenly solidified when an ex-colleague phoned to tell him about a bankrupt guest house in Somerset West.

Jimmy knew the historical Ou Pastorie was the perfect space for what he had in mind as soon as he saw it. Business Partners co-owned the building together with the failed guest house, and they agreed to sell it to the Livewell Group that Jimmy had formed, financing the transaction at the same time.

On 1 September 2011 Jimmy opened his doors with no clients, and 25 staff members on the payroll. “It’s like a hospital – you have to be fully operational before you operate on the first patient.”

It took three of the longest months of his life, says Jimmy, before the first resident signed up.

But it filled up soon after that and today Livewell has a substantial waiting list, with numerous additional day-care clients who join in the social activities for the day, but sleep at home.

That is what happens when a well-executed idea corresponds with a need in market, but part of the success is probably due to Jimmy’s remarkable activist business and marketing strategy.

In setting up Livewell, Jimmy has had to create an organisation that is on the forefront of dementia care not only in South Africa, but also in the world. Apart from its active recruitment of community volunteers, Livewell holds quarterly dementia seminars for doctors and families, it has joined forces with Alzheimer’s South Africa to lobby the medical insurance industry for proper coverage of dementia care and it is setting up a training facility for dementia carers.

Next year, a second Livewell home will open up in Sandton, a third in Durban in 2016, and the group plans to develop a system of home-based services to meet a clear and growing need.