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Unlocking the House of Rumors

June 1, 2004
by root
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That scary "senior care facility" down the street becomes a welcome neighbor, through design by April Maifield, AIA, and Douglas Ogurek
Unlocking the house of rumors

That strange, forbidding place in the neighborhood-the senior living facility!-can become more community-friendly through good design

BY APRIL MAIFIELD, AIA, AND DOUGLAS OGUREK Many of us grew up in neighborhoods that had a "house of rumors"-a mysterious dwelling that seemed somehow separate from us "normal" people. Stories sprouted about it, but nobody knew who truly lived there...or what they did. We tried to avoid it. When we had to pass it, we ran or pedaled as fast as we could.

Unfortunately, senior living facilities have developed a similar reputation within many communities. Community members perceive them as gloomy places to which elderly outcasts retreat to live the remainder of their lonely, sedentary lives. Many soon-to-be retirees steer clear of senior living facilities, which they see as a last resort that requires them to give up so many of the things they love doing. In turn, residents feel physically and psychologically divorced from mainstream society. And providers confront considerable difficulty in marketing their facilities.

But times are changing. Leading long-term care organizations, such as the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA) and the American Health Care Association (AHCA), recently conceived the Quality First initiative, with a mission "to achieve excellence in aging services and to earn public trust." Its 10-Point Plan includes "community involvement" and developing "public trust and consumer confidence."

At the same time members of the first wave of socially dynamic baby boomers are beginning to consider retirement communities. This is a growing demographic group: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans aged 55 to 64 will grow 47.2% between 2000 and 2010, while the workforce will shrink by 10 million workers during the next seven years.

"Unless we create vibrant environments that enhance their lives, people will stay at home for as long as possible," says Eric Krull, associate of THW Design. "We need to take retirement out of the equation," adds Jack Bowersox, president of MAG~NET Architectural Alliance. "The new wave won't let go; they've been involved and want to stay involved."

Senior living organizations, architects, and developers, therefore, are collaborating to address these changes using three methods: allowing residents to mingle with their neighbors, inviting neighbors in, and reaching out to neighbors. By redefining and emphasizing the retirement facility's role in the community, providers can unlock their particular "house of rumors" and create a warm relationship with their neighbors.

Method One: Mingling With Neighbors
For years, senior living facilities have subsisted in out-of-the-way areas, cut off from the real world. To combat this, senior living facilities are joining major mixed-use developments. Giving a retirement facility a prominent location within an energetic neighborhood (which accommodates people of all ages) conveys a message to residents and the community: Seniors are members; they do belong.

One example is Chestnut Square at The Glen, designed by Legat Architects, Inc., and owned and operated by Bethany Methodist Corp. This project is the winner of the Village of Glenview's competition for a five-acre plot in the center of the redevelopment of the former Glenview Naval Air Station (GNAS) in Illinois (figure 1). (For an introductory overview of Chestnut Square, see "Market Positioning Through Design," p. 38, DESIGN 2003, a Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management publication.) Dubbed "The Glen," this 1,121-acre area encourages Chestnut Square residents to become pedestrians, enjoy a variety of surroundings that promote activity, and create a sense of belonging. For example:
  • To the north is a mixed-use area, including townhouses, restaurants, shopping, a wellness center with a senior wing, and a theater.
  • To the east are single family homes and a historical chapel across the street.
  • To the south is a nine-acre prairie.
  • To the south and west is The Glen Club golf course (figure 2).
  • To the northeast are open areas, including a children's park and a lake.
A major advantage of this arrangement is the proximity of all these surroundings. Bethany Methodist conceived Chestnut Square as an option for retired adults seeking an active, socially dynamic lifestyle-and they've succeeded. The facility and The Glen Town Center opened last fall, with the initial group of retail and restaurant establishments occupying 350,000 square feet-all a short stroll from Chestnut Square. (Another 100,000 square feet will open soon.) Residents without drivers' licenses need not wait for a bus to go shopping or out to lunch; they can walk. This gives them control over where they go and when.

Adds Don Owen, director of The Glen Redevelopment Project, "The nice thing about the Town Center is that it's designed to appeal to all age groups."

Chestnut Square is often referred to as "The Heart of The Glen." By placing it in the center of the thriving development, Glenview shows residents and the public that seniors are a vital part of the community.

Method Two: Inviting Neighbors In