Is it really just furniture?

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

WhiteStone’s outdoor dining venue.

Value also means selecting a product because of its longer warranty, sturdy construction or durability. While all furnishings should be durable and safe for residents, there are certain areas and types of furnishings that are used regularly, subjecting them to more wear and tear. Consider paying a little more for these pieces, such as dining room chairs, if it means a longer warranty or high-quality construction (figure 5).

The well-appointed dining room at Pacific Springs Village, Omaha, Neb. Photo: Alise O’Brien

In addition to durability, safety is a primary concern. Glider rockers, for example, are much in demand by residents but they can be unsafe for seniors, and especially those who are frail or who experience balance problems. But, there is a solution. Manufacturers specializing in senior living offer features such as passive lock mechanisms, which prevent the chair from rocking when pressure or weight is applied to the arms. And, residents can get in and out of the chair without assistance, adding to a more independent lifestyle.

Value might be a higher level of service-procuring the furniture through a resource that can be easily contacted to handle any issues that might arise with the product over time. Think through not only the selection process and immediate purchase, but also the long-term commitment that is made when purchasing furnishings for your community. The furnishings might come from multiple manufacturers. Procuring them through one resource will provide a single-source contact, saving your staff time should an issue arise.

Once the proper furnishings for the community have been selected, consider the layout of rooms. Where and how will you arrange these carefully evaluated products? Within a space, especially the common living areas, the design should offer residents multiple options. A large living/activity space, for example, might need to provide areas for smaller intimate visits/conversation, TV or movie watching, writing a letter or completing a puzzle.

This brings up another important component that of the selection process-flexibility. For example, an activity room that also serves as a game room for residents to enjoy Wii bowling, would benefit from having lightweight folding tables that can be stored as opposed to a heavy stationary table with a metal base. Tables with flip-top mechanisms and casters are also helpful in this setting. But, is there a space where these items can be stored when not in use? Thinking these matters through early in the design process, will help to avoid future headaches.


Studies show how important the FF&A elements are, proving that the built environment and, specifically, interiors play a vital part in our overall well-being. Bringing in an interior planner who specializes in senior living environments early on in the design process is the key to a successful project. Early planning can have a direct impact on a project’s bottom line; it can help a community evaluate products, finishes and multiple design solutions; and it can provide the space for educated decision making.

The combination of early planning, a senior living interior expert and a true concern for creating meaningful environments can be the difference between a nice environment and one that speaks to the emotional, psychological and physical needs of a resident. While evidence-based design has been mainstream in the general healthcare industry, it is finally being recognized for the value it brings to senior living communities as well.

Kelley Hoffman is a Senior Designer at Spellman Brady & Company in St. Louis. For more information, call (314) 862-0700 or visit Long-Term Living 2011 November;60(11):38-41

Topics: Articles , Design