Designing bold first impressions

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.

Chairs are also growing to meet the needs of a larger, heavier population. More bariatric products are now being designed to accommodate up to 750 pounds. Their aesthetics are also evolving. “More [beds and chairs] look like a standard piece of furniture with styling and upholstery to match the other furniture in the room,” says Invacare’s Jacki Zumsteg, manager, design operations.

Easier operation for staff and residents is also driving change when it comes to seating, says Richardson: “The designs are more compact and easier to use. Even lift-out seats are becoming easier and smoother to operate.”

At Optima Products, Marv Smith, president, and his team have patented a locking system to make motion chairs safer for populations at greater risk for falls as they ingress and egress. The chairs are locked in a stationary position until weight is placed on the back of the chair. The function reverses for standing: Once the user leans forward, unweighting the chair back, it locks once again.

Smith says he’s also seen an increased demand for Optima’s “scoot” chairs. Similar to wheelchairs, but easier for those lacking arm strength, such chairs feature lower, back-angled seats that allow users to use their feet to propel them forward.

Expect to see more power offerings in the next year or so. “We are taking some of the advances we’ve made on the acute care side and applying them to other markets,” says Todd Norris, CEO of Legacy Furniture. Evidence shows that there is a benefit to power recliners, rockers and lift chairs as the number of residents with dementia and dexterity problems increases. “Prices are going to go down because the demand for these products is rising and will continue to do so.”

Finally, more manufacturers are incorporating entertainment technology into their chairs in the form of iPod stations, USB ports, charging stations and speakers. Also expect such features in other places including bedside stations and headwalls, as well as in residents’ room desks, says Norris.


Little excites interior designers more than great fabrics, and today there are more choices than ever. No longer must style be sacrificed for function and cleanability, says Invacare’s Vollmer: “We’re now able to have elegant patterns and fabrics to match the clean, elegant lines of today’s transitional furniture.”

Chemically protected fabrics are still the go-to products, but treatments are also increasingly employed to allow a wider choice in fabrics. Designers like Vollmer are also effusive about advances in vinyl, which has evolved in recent years at the behest of the hospitality industry. “It’s back! And there are vast colors and patterns and textures,” Vollmer says. “It can look like and have the hand of silk, satin, pigskin, leather, you name it,” she effuses. Her colleague, Zumsteg adds, “Some are truly stunning, with amazingly clear patterns and colors.”

Speaking of pattern and color, florals are still in style, but they are less fussy and more botanical. Large geometrics are also out, but so are small, disorienting patterns. Earth tones, complementing the transitional design of new senior living spaces, remain the enduring choice.


“With flooring, it’s a brand new day,” says Invacare’s Semon. “All preconceived ideas of what you can do in this setting are gone. We can give a comfortable, warm soft or hard product that is functional and easily cleaned.”

High-gloss floors have given way to muted products, which are both easier to maintain and better for aging eyes. Zumsteg says, “One of the toughest things to overcome is the misconception that shiny equals clean. It doesn’t have to.”

Constantly improving offerings from manufacturers have also offered the “best of both worlds,” a soft surface that is highly cleanable.

Richardson says flooring decisions are heavily influenced by budget but she sees a push toward luxury vinyl planks for their ever-improving wood-like appearance, ease of installation, durability and warranties.

Following residential design trends, Richardson says “Wallcoverings are making a comeback with amazing and beautiful patterns. They range from very understated to bold and graphic. Today’s wall coverings—which are vinyl—even those coded for nursing homes, are easier to install and change than wallpaper of the past. You can get a lot of value out of it. People are realizing it’s a good way to fill a space.”

Legacy’s Norris says new modular wall systems are also offering a way to refurbish a facility, particularly resident rooms. In addition to updated aesthetics, the systems feature channels that allow for wiring and plumbing, decreasing construction costs.


Remember when wayfinding meant a different coat of paint or colored lines on the floor? Designers are finding ways to be creative and have fun with wayfinding. A recent Aptura redesign employed the idea of a “town,” with landmarks like a faux post office or soda shop to help residents orient themselves. “It’s more about design, architectural details, art and themes. Clients want it to be less literal,” says Richardson.

As with wayfinding, a growing sophistication is also seen in memory care design. “It can be subtle and still helpful,” says Richardson. “Dementia patients don’t need juvenile design or for us to [single] them out. You can speak to peoples’ dignity and have beauty and style, soothing tones and nice fabrics.”

Gina LaVecchia Ragone is a Cleveland-based freelance writer.

Topics: Articles , Design , Executive Leadership