5 Design Don’ts for Senior Living Communities

Avoid these mistakes to ensure your facility is more livable for the exacting Baby Boom generation, says designer Mary Cook.

Mary Cook

America is aging, which explains why senior housing is the 2nd best investment sector out of 24 the Urban Land Institute identified in its 2019 Emerging Trends in Real Estate report (for the curious, fulfillment is first). U.S. Census statistics show all Baby Boomers will be over 65 by 2030, so senior housing’s investment potential makes sense. A lot of aging Americans will be clamoring for housing that meets their needs.

But their needs are very different than their predecessors’. Boomers are healthier and wealthier than previous senior cohorts. Also, they want to live close to family and friends in retirement and are less likely to compromise on the types of residences they want, notes the National Association of Realtors’ 2018 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Report.

For the commercial real estate industry, this means it’s time to get serious about the housing they develop for this new breed of seniors, which “The Atlantic” calls “the first consumer generation.”  They’ll still need independent-living, assisted-living, skilled-nursing and memory-care communities but, to be successful, projects must reflect this cohort’s unique wants and needs.

Boomers Need Exacting Senior Housing Options

Boomers are not only the richest generation in history, they have more disposable income than any other cohort and they dominate consumer spending. That means they can—and will—spend what it takes to get exactly the kind of housing they want.

While senior housing developers have added trendy “do’s” to their projects—from gourmet dining venues and integrated well-being features to lifestyle concierges and car services—that won’t be enough for aging Boomers. Trends are fleeting, but the qualities that make senior living facilities true “communities” and comfortable homes are enduring.

What are those qualities? Consider the realities of aging: Eyesight, hearing and sense of smell fades, mobility becomes more challenging, once-easy daily activities cause frustration, friends change. These normal changes must be integrated into senior living design to create comfortable homes and foster positive experiences that meet aging residents’ needs. Rather than do’s, “design don’ts” tell the real story. Here’s what builders, developers and operators should avoid in senior living projects.

1) Don’t Disregard Good Design

Unlike previous generations, Baby Boomers are sophisticated consumers and used to starting trends—especially in design. Remember the advent of high-tech in the ’70s? It was followed by revivals of every known style under the sun—from traditional to country to eclectic to modern—infused with kicky contemporary updates. In sharp contrast to yesterday’s bland retirement facilities, today’s emerging seniors will demand greater aesthetic excellence in every facet of their residences. Good design isn’t necessarily expensive, but it is creative, insightful and impeccably executed. Most significantly, it must not only play to this new generation of seniors’ demanding aesthetics; it must also meet their physical needs.

At Azure at Hacienda Lakes, a master-planned Toll Brothers community in Naples, Fl., public and private spaces demonstrate aesthetic excellence and embrace universal design. Image courtesy of Mark Cook Associates

2) Don’t Neglect Accessibility

Baby Boomers, more so than previous generations, hope to remain active and age in place, the Demand Institute notes. Yet there’s a huge need for housing with better accessibility; only 1 percent of America’s current housing stock includes features such as zero-step home entrances, single-level floor plans, wide hallways and doorways for wheelchair accessibility and more, a benchmark report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies notes. Demand will increase exponentially for housing that uses universal design to meet seniors’ physical needs. That especially rings true for a part of the accessibility equation that’s often overlooked: compensating for aging senses that change as we age. Design strategies can and must compensate for these alterations. Signage must use large, readable fonts, spaces must sport materials to optimize acoustics, textiles should be treated to ensure they are smell- and stain-impervious, and more

With copious light, materials that ensure good aesthetics, durable yet beautiful textiles and firm seating, this public space at Willow Valley Communities, an active senior living community in Lancaster, Pa., is designed to enhance livability for its residents. Image courtesy of Mary Cook Associates

3) Don’t Forget to Make Spaces Adaptable & Multifunctional

All spaces that cater to seniors must be designed with flexibility top of mind. Thanks to changes in health, seniors’ activities and constellation of companions (from partners to care-givers) will change, so spaces must be multifunctional as well as accessible. Most importantly, the features that enable this kind of flexibility—from sliding dividers to movable furnishings—must be seamlessly integrated into design and easy to use.

4) Don’t Select Furnishing and Finishes that Disregard the Basics

Furnishings must not only be attractive; they must enhance livability and be designed for ease of use. In both private and public spaces, if chairs, spare beds or partitions are too unwieldy to handle with ease, they won’t get used. Cushy upholstery is counter-productive for seniors whose waning strength makes it difficult to rise when sitting―just as subtle color palettes are problematic for those whose eyesight is waning. Using bold colors or patterns on different floors, for example, spurs instant recognition and “wayfinding.”

5) Don’t Forget to Program Spaces—and Keep It Creative!

In a book called “The Blue Zones Solution,” National Geographic has substantiated that shared activities inspire and cement culture and community, which in turn breed wellness and increase longevity. Yet spaces meant to foster community in senior living developments, no matter how aesthetically pleasing and multifunctional, will lay fallow unless programmed appropriately and continuously to appeal to residents’ current and changing abilities and interests—and encourage them to participate and interact.  

Mary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates, a full-service commercial interior design firm that focuses on the homebuilding and hospitality industries.

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