Till death do us part

A new market for floating hotels

The Economist, 28 October 2004

ARE you haunted by thoughts of spending your golden years vegetating in a dingy old folks' home, supping on denture-friendly peas and boiled beef, and playing endless rounds of cribbage? Fear not, there is a cost-effective alternative: life on a cruise ship. A year in an “assisted-living facility” costs Americans, on average, around $28,500 a year. In large cities such as Chicago, costs are even higher, topping $40,000. Living in a dedicated cabin aboard the Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas, on the other hand, rings in at a rather competitive $33,260 a year.

Luxury liners offer many of the same amenities as old folks' homes: meals and housekeeping, laundry and hair-dressing services, and even an escort to dinner. They have handgrips in the toilets and walk-in showers. And they also provide plenty of things that land-based facilities do not—such as premium-grade ozone, nightly entertainment and round-the-clock access to medical care.

“Cruise ships could be considered as a floating assisted-living facility,” says Lee Lindquist, a geriatrician at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. She first took a cruise last year and was struck by the untapped potential. She has now proposed a new model for old-age living, which she calls “cruise-ship care”, to be published in November's Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Over and above the competitive pricing, Ms Lindquist thinks that cruise ships will actually provide a better service to the elderly. It is hard to beat their staff-to-client ratio—one employee for every two or three passengers, compared with one for every 10-40 residents in the average home. And while the rooms may be smaller, the dance-halls and decks should more than compensate. The extra incentive to get out and about could add years to an old person's life.

Dining-room staff on cruise liners routinely memorise patrons' preferred dinner drinks, and have them ready when they arrive at their table; medications might be dispensed in a similar fashion, suggests Ms Lindquist. And who knows, maybe fewer drugs will be needed: about a quarter of elderly people suffer from depression, she says, but the combined effects of sun and socialisation might help combat that.

Ms Lindquist envisions no more than 15% of a ship being dedicated to old folks so that they are able to mingle with the more youthful regular clientele, a clientele that could become even younger. Grandchildren may well be more inclined to visit granny if she lives aboard a liner in the Caribbean than in an old folks' home on the fringes of Chicago.