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Is it really just furniture?

November 8, 2011
by Kelley Hoffman
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Attractive furnishings set the scene, but age-appropriateness is paramount
Kelley hoffman
Kelley Hoffman

While I was a student in design school, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and my family needed to choose a long-term care facility to meet her needs. With no knowledge of terminology such as CCRC, Green House or buzzwords such as “culture change,” my family and I toured local communities.

Within seconds, my senses were immersed in the space and I knew whether we would consider the community for my grandmother. Unfortunately, it didn't matter how wonderful the care was or how delicious the food was in the various dining rooms. If the interiors did not have the feeling we wanted, we left. For me, this feeling was a sense of “home.” Within moments I knew if this was a place where my family could move my grandmother and be comfortable with the decision.

If our final selection had been based solely on our first impressions, we might have passed up one of the best care facilities in town. How often does this happen because of a poor first impression?


I was inspired by Margaret Calkins' (DESIGN 2011, p. 116) article, “Evidence-Based Design for Dementia,” which discusses how evidence-based design has become an emerging methodology in the senior living industry. An interior planning firm that understands and designs for the specific emotional, psychological and physical needs of a senior plays an important role in a community's success. And it comes down, sometimes, to little things-things that when done well are barely noticed to the untrained eye.

Calkins reminds us that the design and its elements should be noninstitutional. But we all know that “noninstitutional” isn't really a recipe for good design. The term is vague and varies in meaning from individual to individual.

With well-designed spaces (including all interior elements such as finishes, lighting, furnishings, artwork, etc.) we can give residents intangible, and often unnoticed gifts-continued or longer independence, choice and control over their daily lives and the gift of support (figure 1). For example, a resident who loves to paint needs a comfortable chair with arms and durable, cleanable upholstery. The artist might need a tabletop that tilts. There should be adequate storage for artists' supplies as well as their creations. And, of course, good lighting (ambient and task) is imperative.

An inviting living room at WhiteStone: A Masonic and Eastern Star Community, Greensboro, N.C. Photo: Alise O'Brien

In today's CCRCs, where an abundance of amenity spaces not only exist but are expected, a larger variety of furnishings are required to support activities and tasks. Each space needs to be evaluated based on its function (figure 2). Great care and planning must be given to appropriate furnishings specified and designed to support an older adult's needs. Otherwise, an important space will go unused.

The WhiteStone billiards and game room. Photo: Alise O'Brien

Furniture-when done well-is barely noticed. It is important to provide a good mix of furniture sizes and scales, which can still be done within a senior-specific furniture line. So, while certain criteria such as firmness of cushions and arms should always be maintained, other factors such as specific dimensions can and should vary so all residents can find a comfortable seat.


What is the real value in selecting the right furniture? Often, “value” is only seen as the cost of the product-the price tag and the immediate expenditure. In the LTC field, “value” has other meanings more important than cost. Appropriately selected furnishings can have a significant impact.

The interior environment is often the first piece of the project puzzle to receive reaction (positive or negative) from residents, staff and visitors, setting the tone for the entire community. Ironically, the interiors, and especially the FF&A (furniture, fixtures and artwork) components, are often ignored by project teams until later in the process; sequentially, they are the last piece of the puzzle.

In addition to function, aesthetically the design and styling of the furnishings should be an integral part of the whole space (figure 3). Selecting the right style of furniture-traditional, modern or somewhere in between-is important to become a cohesive part of the overall building design. The FF&A should be an extension of the exterior and the rest of the building (figure 4). A visitor should not notice where the architect's work ended, and the interior designer's began. Properly selected, the furniture becomes “functional/sculptural” art that supports and enhances the design team's vision.

WhiteStone's welcoming lobby. Photo: Alise O'Brien