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Designing bold first impressions

July 16, 2012
by Gina LaVecchia Ragone
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Emerging trends in LTC furnishings and interiors reflect hospitality influence
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Bold colors, modern artwork, sleek lines…this isn’t your grandmother’s nursing home. Long-term care owners and administrators have heard it before but it bears repeating. Today’s seniors, more active and engaged in mainstream culture than any other generation before them, appreciate good design. Nancy Semon, manager, interior design & product sales for Invacare tells Long-Term Living, “The clientele is changing. You only have to look at short-term rehab facilities, where the younger residents are, and you’ll see that [the industry] really means it when they talk about adopting a hospitality look. ‘Boutique hotel’ or ‘resort’ is now the norm for new or remodeled spaces.”

And if you think you’re noticing more redesigns, you are correct. Michael Zusman, CEO of furniture design and manufacturing firm Kwalu, says, “Many [facilities] have delayed capital improvements based on reimbursements. However, they are at a critical point now where they can no longer defer those improvements. They are realizing that good first impressions are necessary to be competitive.”

Invacare’s Vickee Vollmer, senior interior designer, adds, “Every new facility we’ve seen has really thought about that first impression and achieving a noninstitutional look.” The shift is evident everywhere: In tub rooms dressed up like chic spas. In dining rooms that look and feel like real restaurants. In the hallways and nurses stations devoid of linen carts, extra supplies and other clutter. As if they’ve taken a cue from Disney, today’s senior living facilities keep the magic up front by putting the machinery behind the scenes.


Gone are both the aseptic institutional or fussy formal looks of nursing homes past. Modern senior living design (both in new construction and remodels) banishes the bland and eschews the ornate in favor of transitional design. This more contemporary aesthetic is particularly common where younger seniors reside. Catherine Richardson, design consultant, Direct Supply Aptura, says, “Our clients mostly want to push boundaries. They’re designing not only for residents who are 85 today, but for those will be 85 ten or 15 years from now, and those seniors don’t want to walk into a nursing home. They want to walk into a community, an experience.” Add to this the fact that many seniors’ housing decisions are made, at least in part, by their baby boomer children, and it is easy to understand the shift.

Kwalu’s Zusman says his clients typically fall into two camps: One looking for a homelike aesthetic, the other for a contemporary resort look. Geography and demographics are influencing factors, he says, noting that CCRCs lean more toward the contemporary. In the Northeast, for example, “very dark or very pale woods” are popular, while in the Southwest, mid-range cherries and terra cottas are constantly in demand. Richardson says, “We definitely are seeing more contemporary design, but rural Iowa will never want to look like the W Hotel in New York City.”


Designer tile; chic wall coverings; decorative mirrors, soap dispensers, grab bars and lighting; benches; fireplaces; and water features are becoming more common in a variety of senior community bathing areas.

“We’re seeing the gutting of tub rooms and the installation of spas,” says Invacare’s Vollmer. “Facilities are expanding their vision of what to do in those areas.”

More senior communities are also upgrading to therapeutic tubs, the newest of which fill faster and feature enhanced bubble systems. Money is also being spent on doored tubs and lifts: “Things to make the staff’s jobs easier,” says Aptura’s Richardson. This translates to finishes as well, such as tile slabs in sizes up to eight feet, which reduce grout lines and cleaning time.


Durability still rules where case goods are concerned. While thermolaminates are still somewhat limiting in terms of style, they remain the go-to product for their ability to resist abuse and for their attractive price points. Trending now are furniture lines that offer replaceable parts for these pieces.  “If the top of a night table begins to peel, you replace the top, which can be done in the field, so you’re not losing the piece, and it cuts down on shipping costs as well,” explains Aptura’s Richardson.

New technologies have improved the printing quality of the faux wood grains, giving designers more options. Where woods and wood tones are concerned, the staples are still favored because of their versatility and timelessness. Mahogany, cherry and other warm finishes are most popular, but walnut is also emerging, while maple is waning. Kwalu’s Zusman adds that as in residential design, gray-toned woods are on trend, as are more exotic species, such as zebrano wood. ”People are looking to make design statements without dating them; they want to be timeless but distinctive.”


When it comes to beds, bigger is better. Of course, bariatric needs are driving this trend, but so is smart marketing. “Offering something that is more like the bed a resident had at home, both in terms of size and with nicely finished headboards and footboards, is appealing,” says Vollmer.