Home | Industry & Reform | Now? Couple launches vision of aged care cruise ship

Now? Couple launches vision of aged care cruise ship

At a time when cruise ships are becoming writ large as heaving leviathans of deadly contagion, one couple in New Zealand has just put on the market a new venture to place the most vulnerable age group on board.

Elysium Cruise Line Residence is the vision of Andre and Avril Sidler: a self-funded, luxury repurposed six-star cruise ship that is simultaneously a premium aged care home, with a flagship voyage scheduled for 2024. Chasing temperate climes on a flexible but predictable itinerary (with up-to-date location data streamed via website and app for families and friends), the elderly elite travel in stateroom cabins to boutique ports across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. 

The idea took seed five years ago, when Andre (an aviation veteran) began researching care options for his ageing mother, Taesega. What he found uniformly disappointed him – and at times left him horrified. He couldn’t imagine abandoning Taesega in her final years to a cooped-up life of stasis, stagnation and bad food. As much a proactive son as a loving one, he resolved to create the haven he couldn’t find. Hundreds of hours have been poured into the project, and all of his savings. Early this year, the website was launched and the campaign to secure the first fleet of passengers began. 

Taesega Sidler in the early 1960s. Photo: supplied

The Sidlers’ dream is one of inexhaustible bounty. As their customers harbour in Sydney, Vanuatu, Fiji, Akaroa and more, they see them regaled with a smorgasbord of entertainment options. Sapphire pools can be swum in; theatre shows can be watched; and there are even plans for the ship to host grey cells-stimulating televised TEDxTalks. When it comes time to repose, residents do so in one of 371 private rooms, each measuring no less than 20 square metres.

Meanwhile, and what would make Elysium a world-first, residents receive comprehensive health support through advanced specialist medical facilities and a phalanx of 300-400 qualified nursing staff. On board this 50,000 gt colossus, there will be A & E surgeries, podiatry and pathology clinics, a pharmacy, a dentist, an optician, physio and general clinics too. These services are equal if not superior to aged care homes that exist onshore. Or, at least onshore in the Bahamas, where the ship is registered (as are 30 per cent of cruise ships mainly for the tax and regulation loopholes), and whose health and safety codes the ship must singularly comply. 

Should a resident’s health situation exceed the ship’s capabilities, they will be transferred to the nearest partner aged care provider or hospital – by helicopter, if the ship happens to be en route at the time (though the ship will spend 80 per cent of its journey at harbour). Depending upon the nature of the decline, this transfer may be permanent or temporary. The aim, however, is for Elysium to be “medically autonomous … catering for the range of ailments that the elderly may suffer”. 

“With our medical facility on board, the idea is to be able to cater, rehabilitate, then stabilise them,” says Andre. “And if they can, have them stay on board with us.”

“From a business, and moral, and ethical point of view, we will be looking to actually bring the best from Australia, the best from New Zealand, and the best from the US, and the best from around the world with regards to how to run an aged care facility – without being bound by local regulations.”

If a resident dies of natural causes there is a morgue below deck – a contingency space commonplace on cruise ships and hospital ships. Here, the deceased will undergo a post-mortem and death certificate process with a certified coroner, sourced from ashore from their contracted regional funeral director partner. 

End of life options will have been discussed before boarding. Should the resident wish for their final resting place to be a specific location onshore, they will be expatriated from the ship, with all costs pre-arranged. Alternatively, the founders hope to avail residents the option of an eco-friendly ‘Promessa’ burial: “Reducing their remains to its natural elements in ash form to be spread at sea, or converted into a ‘diamond’ via another common post-life memorial process.”

Yes but … now? 

In our initial hour-long phone conversation from their home in New Zealand, the Elysium website launched the week prior, the Sidlers’ zeal is unflagging – despite the Diamond Princess COVID-19 fiasco, then at its peak. (“What an extraordinarily bad time to launch such a venture,” comments Aged Care Insite columnist and lawyer, Michael Fine.) 

A fortnight later, cruise ship stocks would plummet an unprecedented 60 per cent, with governments issuing advice not to board “floating petri dishes”. Entry of cruise ships from foreign ports was soon banned in Australia. When 100 infected passengers of the Ruby Princess disembarked in Sydney, the public – and the Australian Border Force – were incensed. As of April, 10 per cent of coronavirus cases could be traced to the liner.

The Ruby Princess sits off the coast of Bondi on 28th March 2020. The Ruby Princess was allowed to unload 2700 passengers in Sydney with dozens of undiagnosed coronavirus cases onboard. Picture. Phil Hillyard

Andre is far from oblivious to the amassing stigma around cruise ships. But he believes that the notion that they are hotbeds of disease is a product of “media hype and hysteria”. 

“COVID-19 is an airborne virus transmitted by proximity and residual contact – not just cruise ships per se,” he tells me over email in March (that same day, my company would issue instructions for staff to work from home). “Any large gathering, large building, has the same concentrated transmittal effect.” 

He also argues that, given its unique medical facilities and specialty staff, Elysium would provide residents a secure, socially distanced haven against outbreaks. 

“What has heightened the drama is that people are now effectively detained onboard cruise ships for at least a quarantine time of 14 days, which interferes with their lives and that of the cruise ship itineraries … Elysium has permanent residents with no need to go to shore.”

The demand for luxury senescence 

The privilege of such decadent, palatial decline is not cheap. On top of an initial upfront deposit of US$62,500 per square metre of premium cabin space, the daily rate is US$450/day – a cost inclusive of all meals, beverages, entertainment, business centre use, daily linen changes, laundry, nurses and carers, and assessed pre-joining level of medical care. 

“This is not for regular Joes, like most of us are,” agrees Sidler. “This is for the people that do have money and don't want to go into a little room with a single bed and painted beige walls, and that's it. This is for people who have got a lot of wealth, and say: ‘Hang on, I'm used to my beautiful home. Okay, yes, I have to go into a facility, but I still want to have a beautiful room and beautiful facilities around me. And I can afford it.’”

The Elysium pricing model and structure, as finessed through the guidance of international law firm Clifford Chance, is based off the current Australian aged care system. This puts the daily rate equitable to that of a premium aged care facility (like Montefiore in NSW), slightly more expensive than a five-star resort, and about half the rate of an Aspen hotel at seasonal peak.

“To come onto the Elysium ship, you're not buying a room,” Andre explains. “We don't think that model works. What you are is providing a deposit for that room.”

“We thought, that's transparent, straightforward; they're not losing the money. The estate will get back the full amount if they're on the ship for longer than three years. If they're not, there will be a processing fee of about $50,000 to redo the room, change the mattresses, and redo the décor for the client or resident coming into that particular room.”

One of the penthouse suites available for sale on The World luxury cruise liner. Photo: Supplied

Under Elysium’s philosophy, clients are treated as customers to be satisfied, rather than bodies to be maintained. Accordingly, they are pampered in ways befitting their investment.

On the ship, there will be a mini-mall stocked with luxury brands and a global showcase for local merchandise. For those with more particular tastes and proclivities, they can pay extra for an a la carte menu to sample from, as well as butler services, massage and beauty therapies, a classic car fleet and VIP float plane services. 

The founders expect residents to hail from all continents, but Australia and Asia in particular. All nationalities and people are invited aboard, bound only by the prerequisites that they abide by the Elysium code of conduct; they submit to a background check; and their passport gets them into Bahaman territory. 

It may sound futuristic, but Andre and his wife Avril, also a co-founder, are all in. (Their website displays a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “The way to predict the future is to create it.”) Over the last five years, under their company Concept Ideas Pty Ltd, they have devoted 2,500 hours to the concept and, at least for now, hold 100 per cent of shares.

While the market may be niche, they are confident that it’s there. In talking to several land-based premium aged care providers, they were astonished by the extent of demand. Directors of these high-class homes would tell them of waiting lists that stretched into years – precious years, if you only have a few left. 

Moreover, as Andre points out, “30 million people a year cruise. Out of that, 50 per cent are actually above the age of 50, and 33 per cent, or 10 million, above the age of 65.

“Effectively, premium aged care is actually under-catered for and over-subscribed. Our vision was a solution to that, and price the same as what a land-based facility is.”

The marketing campaign, as launched by Oxygen Media, began in mid-March. Despite the pandemic dramatically curbing travel by government decree and consumer choice, there were three expressions of interest in the first week. 

Soul mates and business deals at sea

Beyond the gourmet food, garnishings and lavish comfort of Elysium’s promise, there is another distinguishing feature the founders hope to introduce which has a far more humanist appeal.

Often, when a resident is admitted into an aged care home, they must go in alone. It is perhaps the most painful wrenching from the familiar, separated from their life partner of however many years. 

“One of the things we felt was very important was that with our facilities, you can come on still as a couple,” says Andre.

“You both pay an allowance a day, but you're together, and we think that's really important. So many people – in fact one in three – suffer from loneliness and depression when they go through aged care.” Couples on the Elysium are allowed to share a double bed or a double room, till death do them part.

Screenshot from the Elysium Cruise Line Residence home page.

There are also several rooms tucked away in the middle of the ship – without the glorious sea view – which are set aside specifically for short-term rentals from visiting relatives and friends. The Sidlers are excited about what this entails for the family dynamic: where a visit to an elderly resident is transformed from a guilt-ridden obligation to a chance to join them on an adventure abroad.

“Rather than just a few hours of driving up to see nana or grandad at an aged care facility, where the children are bored, you get quality immersion,” they say. “It's real quality time with relatives, or friends and family and colleagues.

“Visitors can enjoy everything that the residents can enjoy, and more importantly, it gives them an opportunity for the residents to show off and say, ‘Hey, get a load of my life!’”

Andre and Avril also want residents and/or their partners to be empowered to continue pursuing their business ideas and ambitions, should they so wish. There will be business office spaces available, and executive staterooms for c-suiters. An infirm body does not denote a mushy mind, and Elysium wishes to honour the identities that residents bore in their more hale years. This spirit underlines their motto: Adding Life to Your Years, and Years to Your Life.

“Statistically, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the average time of those in aged care is 35 months,” says Andre. “I inquired further to say, ‘Well, look, where are the stats for people staying longer?’ They came back and said, 'They don't stay longer. They usually die within that area of time. They don't live longer than five years in an aged care facility.’

“This is not a retirement village. This is where people needing low to medium and high levels of care statistically in the last 35 months of their life.

“We're looking to improve that [ABS] statistic.”

Finding a fit for purpose ship

The search for a luxury cruise ship is easier than you’d think. For Andre, all it took was a Google search. 

“There's actually about three websites out there that will show you flagships that are currently up for sale,” he tells me. “They vary from $1 million, all the way up to $150 million. It's like a car yard. You go in there and say, ‘Well, what's wrong with that ship that it's only selling for $3 million, but it's about 100 cabins large?’”

To aid their reconnaissance, they commissioned UK maritime consultant firm G.P. Wild (International) to create a feasibility report for them. Was this even viable? What would need to be done to reconfigure the ship so that it was suitable for residents needing 24/7 medical support? What upfront and ongoing sums would it require to power such a complex operation?

The list the consultant supplied came back with 26 feasible ships, which were whittled down to three. It is one, 25-year-old luxury cruise liner which is the Sidlers’ frontrunner, as discovered through the ship-broker SeaBoats – which deals in everything from fishing boats built in Xiamen, to catamarans built in Germany, to pontoons, super yachts and houseboats. 

Captain Peter Cookson, the director of SeaBoats Australia, was used to hearing left-of-field ideas. In fact, he says, this wasn’t the first time he’d heard of such a proposal. But where previous parties were more than a few shades naive about what such an enterprise would entail, Cookson was impressed by not only Andre’s persistence, but the comprehensive research he’d put in.

A 36m Catamaran Cruise Vessel for sale on the SeatBoats website.

“Even in the early stages, he seemed to know a reasonable amount about ships and the potential problems he could face,” Cookson tells me. “It's not something that's just sort of come out of nowhere. It's a progressive and structured process that he's been through.”

In March, the Sidlers took a tour of their preferred ship, and were happy with what they saw.

They invited several architect firms with experience in innovative aged care design to take a look at the ship too. One of these is Brisbane-based ThomsonAdsett – one of the world’s largest firms specialising in seniors living – and the others are two New Zealand companies, Avery Team Architects and Ignite Architects.

All three vouched for the ship as having great potential to be refurbished for its intended use. Assessment reports were submitted by the New Zealand companies, with a common bottom line.

“Effectively the first sentence was, ‘Yes, absolutely’,” says Sidler. “‘This can be reconfigured to be compatible with any aged care facility that you'll find on land.’” 

Kerry Avery of NZ-based Avery Team Architects attest to his firm’s confidence – with the caveat that his responses were based on pre-outbreak opinions. Professing a long-held fantasy of booking out an apartment on The World –currently the only cruise ship on which passengers never have to leave – he sees the Sidlers’ vision as a “logical next step, in particular for the vast ageing baby boomer market, of which I am proud to be one”.

He has no qualms with the projected timeline, and asserts that the ship is suitable “to accommodate almost any element a floating aged care facility and home on the ocean could imagine”. 

Designed to be capacious, the doors and hallways of the cruise ship are already wide enough for those bound by wheelchair or walking frame. The elevators and bathrooms are large enough to meet the standards, too.

“There's still work to be done, but a lot of it is cosmetic,” says Andre, “like more ramps, making sure that there's no stepping over entryways in doorframes, more handrails in showers. Those sorts of things you would find in your normal aged care facility.” 

The preferred ship is no spring chicken, and may not last more than 10 to 15 years at sea – particularly with the maritime industry’s crackdown on fuel inefficiency and sulphur emissions, endemic to older vessels. Andre recognises this, Cookson affirms, and is already thinking about fitting the ship with fuel scrubbers or paying for cleaner, higher quality fuel. 

They’re not ruling out the two other ships either – which are available as early as 18 months from now. Their prize ship remains under the seller’s ownership until July 2023, with money yet to change hands, and a strict confidentiality agreement in place until then. The terms of payment for this multi-million dollar boat are yet to be fully negotiated, too – but Cookson says that the unique function of Elysium might work in the Sidlers’ favour. 

“If I own a cruise ship and it's coming to the end of its life, as a ship owner, I am looking for somebody to buy that ship. What I don't want is for somebody to buy that ship and then compete against me in the same sort of market,” he says. 

“In this particular case, the ship owner can rest assured that there's going to be no competition. I'm not saying they'd ask for less money, but they might be more inclined to say, okay, you can pay us over a period of time as your funding comes in. They may be less inclined to demand the normal 100 per cent upfront payment when you buy a ship.”

The business

Andre and Avril Sidler. Photo: Supplied

With Andre’s background in aviation, and Avril’s in customer service, neither have aged care experience to bring to the table. Securing industry credibility was a vital step to ensure accountability and peace of mind for their customers.

To this end, the founders are consolidating a partnership with one of the leading nursing home providers in the United States, with a Letter of Intent in its draft stage and underway, pandemic or no. While a strict NDA precludes them from disclosing the name of this organisation, Sidler says it currently manages 500 nursing homes in the US and 11 in China, with a turnover of about US$4.7 billion annually. 

“When we approached them, they got it immediately,” Andre says. “They thought this was great for their brand to take it global because you're not landlocked. It appeared they weren't just talking about one ship either, they were interested in bringing their brand across several – especially since they're looking to penetrate into middle Asia.”

Meetings in Hong Kong with the CEO and senior vice-president of international operations they hope will develop into an arrangement where the provider essentially has brand ownership of the cruise liner, and manages the ship’s aged care operations.

While currently holding all the shares of Elysium, the Sidlers encourage like-minded investors to come on board. Founding investors are entitled to 30 per cent equity profit of the inaugural ship for 10 years “conservatively forecast at $70 million USD ROI for only 3 parcels of US$1 million each”.

An investment of US$1million also guarantees first choice of a luxury stateroom configured to a décor of choice. (Other, larger investment packages are available, with larger perks too.)

The launch

Taesega Sidler on her 89th birthday. Photo: supplied

Should Andre and Avril’s opulent aged care vision be realised, the first Elysium Cruise Line Residence ship will be launched in four years: first in Auckland, then in Sydney. Taesega, who is turning 90 this July, will be honoured as godmother to this inaugural ship. International guests who have reserved their cabins will be flown in, with the founders already envisioning partnerships with airlines like Qantas and Air New Zealand.

One day, years from now, the Sidlers hope to join them.

“For my wife and I, the exit plan is to end up on one of our ships in 20 years time. That's what we want. I think this is a fitting way to spend our last few years of our life: having 24/7 care, only two minutes away from surgery if need be.”

And as for Taesega, who inspired it all? 

“I give Glory and Honour to God for all the blessings of my life,” she says. “I have used my life to serve and love others and leave this as a legacy and blessing to my family.”

An orphaned immigrant, sent from Samoa to New Zealand to work as a seamstress, Taesega now stands at the prow of an uncertain future, ready to bless the craft that will set her on her final journey on earth over sea – and to bless the dauntless ambitions of a devoted son.

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