Designed to engage

Meeting the needs of the customer is essential no matter the industry. In the dynamic and ever-growing senior living industry, this can be difficult to pinpoint and address quickly. Residential care providers that are unable to determine how they can be more resident friendly are potentially missing a chance to create a richer environment for residents— and at a competitive disadvantage.

Leading designers and experts identified major industry trends at J+J Flooring Group’s second annual Senior Living Design Symposium. Here are three design considerations to make senior living more resident friendly.

Make it Contemporary and Adaptable

The perception of what senior living communities should look like has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. The industry is moving from very traditional and, in some cases, institutional properties to a more a tailored, sophisticated and contemporary approach – particularly in more affluent communities. One drive for the shift is that baby boomers have different tastes than their parents’ generation.

Today’s aging population is also staying active longer. Their need for more contemporary spaces go beyond aesthetics, to ones a less traditional approach to retirement with areas and programming that connect to nature and support physical fitness, hobbies and other interests. The 50- and 60-somethings who are doing yoga and Pilates now want to continue the practice when they are in their 70s and 80s.

Keeping seniors connected to the community is important to the health and wellbeing for everyone says Anne Simpson, MD, CMD, a gerontologist from the University of New Mexico. “If we are not inclusive in our thinking for designing [senior living communities], then automatically, we are exclusive,” she says.

In addition, it’s increasingly important for senior living communities to appeal to the secondary customer, the child, rather than the resident. And while balancing the needs and desires of a 57-year-old and an 80-year-old can be difficult, the power of design in marketing should not be overlooked. For example, a website is probably the first place a child will go to look at a facility, probably on his or her mobile device. So, it too, should be contemporary and adaptable – just like the building itself.

Take a Rigorous Approach to Functional Programming

The increased popularity of reality TV for home improvement has created an expectation that structural or design projects can be done cheaper, faster and easier. This does not bode well for the operational needs of a senior living project. Functional programming, is the framework for decision-making throughout the project design, operational development, and construction process, says Jane Rohde, AIA, FIIDA, CHID, ACHA, AAHID LEED AP BC+D, Principal, JSR Associates, Ellicott City, Md.

Rohde helped write the language on the functional programming process for the 2014 Guidelines for Design and Construction for Residential Health, Care, and Support Facilities published by the Facility Guidelines Institute (FGI). She says there are six key questions to ask that can guide the process to ensure facility and design professionals do not get caught in the “HGTV trap” when it comes to the functional programming process.

  1. Who will be served by the project?
  2. What user activities will occur in the spaces affected or created by the project?
  3. Why is each user group engaged in each activity?
  4. When will these activities take place?
  5. Where will these activities take place?
  6. What resources will be needed to carry out these activities?

Rohde says it’s important to consider FGI’s environment of care recommendations and do a resident safety risk assessment in conjunction with developing the functional program.

Working with a knowledgeable designer or team with expertise in planning and designing senior living facilities is key to ensuring the space will meet the needs of residents and be operationally sustainable. Project experience is key, but it’s also good to look for healthcare design credentials like those offered by the American College of Healthcare Architects and the American Academy of Healthcare Interior Designers.

Keep a Close Eye on What’s Next

People are living longer, many with chronic conditions. The number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease is also expected to triple in the next 30-40 years. And what about affordable housing for seniors? Not everyone will be able to afford to live in an affluent senior living community. In China, where the aging population is exploding and there is no long-term care system in place, developers are looking at turning low-end motels into senior living.

The continuing care retirement community (CCRC) model still works for many seniors. But in more rural areas, where CCRCs are built at the edge of town, there is little physical connection with the community. With the interest on active aging and community engagement, many like veteran senior living designer Maria Lopez, CHID, Principal, Maria Lopez Interiors, Stevenson, Md., believe it’s time for the traditional CCRC model to evolve.

There are some interesting concepts emerging that blend the services of the traditional CCRC with more community integration.

Developers are partnering with universities to integrate seniors as a subcommunity onto college campuses. Most of these types of projects so far have been more or less CCRCs on or near campus, but there are opportunities to partner with any type of institutions such as a sports team or arts organization. Senior living providers and developers are also looking at providing specialized senior services within mainstream developments in more central locations. Multi-family residential housing is also emerging as an option for seniors who want to downsize but are still healthy and mobile.

Universal design may also be a solution to more integrated communities. “If we design everything universally, we won’t have to have compartmentalized living communities that address age-specific populations,” says Jeffery Bogart, ASID, Senior Interior Designer, Eppstein Uhen Architects, Milwaukee. “Boomers are going to especially embrace that notion.”

Clearly, staying competitive in the marketplace means creating a better experience for residents, no matter their activity or income level. By embracing these trends and taking action now, senior living owners and operators can better meet the needs of seniors, both today and tomorrow.

Sara O. Marberry, EDAC, is a healthcare design writer, blogger, speaker, and strategic marketing and business consultant in Evanston, Ill.. She can be reached at


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