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For those older adults facing a transition into assisted care, Allium Healthcare’s philosophy must be a welcome breath of fresh air. “The fundamental belief that we have is that no two seniors are the same,” Allium Healthcare’s CEO Bernie Poh tells The CEO Magazine. “Anyone who walks in our door has their own history, their own preferences, their own likes and dislikes.”
This means that things are done a bit differently inside its leafy residential care facility, Allium Care Suites, on Venus Drive in Singapore. “We believe in the power of normalcy,” he says. “So enabling our seniors to have as normal a living, for as long as possible, is a priority.”
“We take a positive approach to longer living.”
Flowing on from that mindset is an openness to informed risk-taking, something Bernie says is very unconventional in the traditional healthcare model. Take alcohol, for example. “I don’t think any nursing home in Singapore would allow their residents to consume alcohol but from our experience, and what we have seen elsewhere, it’s all about responsible consumption,” he notes. “If our seniors have a lifestyle that includes having a drink or two every day, we like to build that into the care plan.”
The third “aspect of longevity” which is both a core pillar and a differentiator at Allium is a focus on retained abilities. “We have residents with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of having to cope with new processes and new routines in the nursing home, as it would be in other residential care facilities, we concentrate on what they can remember and on maintaining that connectivity to the memories they have retained,” he says. “Rather than simply focusing on functional losses, we take a positive approach to longer living.”
For Bernie, observations from across his career in the healthcare sector, both in hospital and long-term care management, were what sparked his interest in the aged care sector. “Over the years I’ve seen how the hospital scene has changed and how care has been transformed within bricks and mortar to community settings,” he explains.
Added to this were the demographic trends that provided an irrefutable snapshot of the future. “I could foresee that there would be a significant increase in the ageing population,” he says. His decision made, he left his C-Suite role at Pacific Healthcare (run and operated by Entrust Healthcare) and joined on as Senior Vice President at GK Goh, the listed investment holding company that would establish Allium in 2017.
But first, there were other, “more mature” markets to explore. “Prior to starting Allium, we invested in the nursing home and retirement village sector in Australia, and that prepared us for the growth in demand in aged care in Asia,” he explains. Today, Allium still co-owns Opal HealthCare in the country, which cares for nearly 8,000 residents in 80 facilities.
“We foresee that the focus will move from illnesses and their treatments to quality of life, health and care.”
When the right time came to establish a presence in Singapore, Bernie and his team were brimming with ideas for delivering aged care with a difference. “We had done enough analysis to know what sort of model of care we would like to build.”
In Allium Care Suites, Allium has given Singapore its first purpose-built luxury residential care home, the first of many the company plans to build across the country. The process was very careful and considered and brought together a variety of voices. “We co-created the experience with both our recipients and caregivers in mind,” he says, adding that this co-participation created both ownership and satisfaction among these key stakeholders.
It was also crucial to get the design just right. “We consulted both local and international architects and the result is a very different model and environment,” he explains. “We’re the first in Singapore to offer a small household living model in nursing homes.” Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed and in 2020, the Outstanding Property Awards London judged the Allium Care Suites as the best architectural design in healthcare.
“We have also been recognised as a trailblazer by Ageing Asia for our innovative model of care,” Bernie adds, and it’s clear that such awards hold a lot of significance for a company that continues to look ahead of the curve to remain relevant. “We are building for the near future, particularly to be ready for when the baby boomers move into that age group,” he says.
Bernie and his team know that these boomers – a generation that looks set to have more wealth in their older years than any before them – will bring with them a change in behaviour and consumption. “We foresee that the focus will move from illnesses and their treatments to quality of life, health and care,” he notes.
As such, Allium is bringing the concept of hospitality in health care to the fore. “This could come in the form of managing the customer relationship with various stakeholders, including family members and other caregivers,” he explains. “It also allows us to look at the lifestyle preferences of our seniors.” The business is working closely with hospitality providers to outline processes, train staff and design its non-clinical processes.
“I always have a listening ear to my team, it keeps my feet grounded,” he says. “Being humble and being able to function effectively as a team is very important.”
Bernie knows that time is the main ingredient when driving big changes and, as such, says that over the next 12-to-18 months, the plan is to continue to invest in its people, empower its staff and build a foundation for the new model of service delivery that Allium is bringing to the sector.
“It takes time to shape a certain service culture in terms of delivering the essential services to the older adults in society, and ensuring that we have the processes and services in place to support, as much as possible, a normal, healthy lifestyle for the seniors under our care,” he says.
Beyond residential care, Allium also offers day care, rehabilitation therapy, home care and caregiver support and, as the demand in the region for older adult care services grows, Bernie sees not only an opportunity for the company to expand, but also for it to share its management expertise.
The term pioneer is one that sits comfortably with him, especially in relation to what they are building at Allium. But he also knows blazing a new path isn’t easy. “Being the pioneer in any field or sector, there’s always the challenge of creating awareness, educating the market, generating demand, sharing demands and behaviours and testing out the pricing strategies,” he explains. “These were the common challenges that we faced in the beginning, as well as attracting a pool of talent that would embrace innovation and get ready for the future.”
He and his team are thankful for their operations in Australia, which allow them to keep at the forefront of innovation in their sector. “It’s like a window for us,” he reveals. “Whenever we are stuck in our current situation, we have a window to open.” But they also know not to limit themselves just to one single market for inspiration. “We also look outwards to embrace knowledge. We are always keen and interested to learn about new technology and new practices,” he says.
“Being the pioneer in any field or sector, there’s always the challenge of creating awareness, educating the market, generating demand, sharing demands and behaviours and testing out the pricing strategies.”
And Bernie understands that it’s down to him to lead by example. “As leaders, we have to keep abreast of developments and technology,” he explains. “Because being in the service industry, leadership is all about motivating and empowering staff, and innovations are one way to achieve that.”
Creating a supportive and collaborative culture at Allium has been a clear priority, a key to unlock the model of care it is looking to instil. “At the end of the day, I strongly believe in relationship-rich care. And, in order to nurture the caregiving relationship, we need to provide and support the right environment, the right training and the right resources for that to happen,” he says.
And the rewards are all the motivation Bernie needs. “The trust our clients have in us to take good care and co-create experiences with our seniors is what gets me out of bed every day,” he says. “But it’s not something we take lightly; we know we have to earn that trust.”
It’s clear Bernie has found his niche in the industry. “The business of longevity is very exciting,” he enthuses. “It’s one that is going to be dominant for the next two decades or so.”