Meeting the Evolving Housing Needs of Seniors

Two EDSA landscape architects take a deep dive into future-forward design patterns for senior living communities, highlighting how the elders’ preferences are changing.
Pablo Massari, Principal, EDSA. Image courtesy of EDSA

Demand for senior living assets continues to improve and so is their design. Nowadays, these communities are transitioning toward more physical space, greater walkability and a deeper connectivity to nature, EDSA Principal Pablo Massari, told Multi-Housing News

The aging population is craving safe social connections in harmonious environments that build on both accessibility and functionality. Taking into account the long-term needs of retirees, EDSA is designing communities that enable an active lifestyle, putting an emphasis on outdoor living and other future-forward design practices that attract and retain residents. 

Massari, along with Vice President Mihaela Zaharescu, discuss the growing move toward resort-style, healthy living in senior housing.


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What are the main shifts you are observing in senior living design?

Massari: While no one can predict the future, the manner in which senior living communities are developed, designed, marketed and operated is changing. Among the 65-plus population—that is growing at a rate of nearly 10,000 per day—there is a strong demand for wellness programming that enhances and promotes healthy living. This will require the dedication of more physical space for walkability, in-community services and encounters with the natural world.

As designers, we are accelerating the adoption of place-based, site design practices that reinforce safe human connections, accessibility and functionality. This shift or continued realignment is about offering options for independent and skilled care living, with richer programs, while creating harmony between people, space and place.

Mihaela Zaharescu, Vice President, EDSA. Image courtesy of EDSA

Zaharescu: There has also been a major shift to resort-style living. Seniors expect to maintain the same level of comfort they experienced in their family homes and seek boutique offerings that focus on meaningful experiences. Today’s senior living facilities feature multiple on-site restaurants and cafes, as well as other high-end amenities, including indoor and outdoor swimming pools, spas, salons, game rooms, wine cellars, spaces for continuous learning and passive parks.

How did the pandemic-induced requirements influence your work? What is permanent and what is temporary?

Massari: As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing the needs of the aging population dovetail with trends similar to those Millennials are seeking for existential experiences and living life to the fullest. Many generations aren’t interested in being “in the middle of nowhere,” nor do they want to be isolated in 55-plus housing developments. It’s about moving to an area that offers more social and recreational activities that will keep retirees active and engaged.

As such, mixed-use urban quarters where seniors can share life with young people and reaffirm their connection to the world and culture are gaining in popularity. This trend coincides with less auto-centric living, access to amenities of a thriving downtown and nearby health offerings. The demand is certainly there and growing. 

What are the most common functional design elements that you incorporate in your senior living projects to meet the evolving needs of seniors?

Massari: Rather than designing senior living facilities to shield residents from the next pandemic, EDSA is building on trends that took root prior to the arrival of COVID-19. These include higher density or “micro-urbanist” communities that incorporate an array of housing choices and in-patient health-care facilities within the same neighborhood. This model cultivates healthier homes and invites multigenerational living.

Simple modifications like natural ventilation, views from the indoors out and biophilic design practices speak to society’s newfound focus on a reconnection to the outdoors and responsibility to wellness.

In addition, as designers, we must balance functionality and aesthetics with experiences and expectations, designing spaces that feel welcoming and inviting—such as parks and village centers—draw people outdoors and make for great neighborhoods.

For an active lifestyle, consider roadways spun with gentle curves to reduce speed or designated bike lanes and jogging paths to create a cohesive tapestry and non-vehicular intimacy. For elderly residents, carefully choose and strategically locate site furnishings and shade structure, along with multiple access points to amenities for comfort.

How much emphasis do you place on outdoor spaces and amenities?

Massari: People require access to the outdoors to thrive and survive. The American Society of Landscape Architects, reported in a recent survey that 82 percent of directors from assisted-living residences agreed that the design of outdoor spaces is one of the most important considerations in overall design. Also, in support of a connection to nature, the Global Wellness Institute indicated that external and environmental factors are responsible for up to 80 percent to 90 percent of our health outcomes.

We have seen firsthand the profound influence environment can have on public health, as noted in some of our healing gardens and hospital work. In well-designed communities, the overall social fabric is strengthened by connecting people to means of livelihood, education, recreation, culture and other resources. Integrated natural areas can further bolster a sense of community by drawing people together and enhancing social connections.

What kind of wellness areas, for both leisure and outdoor activities, are most common in your designs?

Massari: Trends already underway are also reshaping and repurposing outdoor realms. New and existing communities will do well to minimize pavement and maximize green space, or simply create tree canopies for healthful, soothing shade.

Meanwhile, existing golf courses are being reimagined as residents have repurposed on-site courses to parks for picnicking, and cart paths for walking and biking. These areas blend home and leisure and provide residents with activities that improve their mental and physical health.

Zaharescu: Outdoor fitness areas, walking paths and secluded gardens are not only amenities that can enhance living, but they are widely requested by developers and senior living communities as they represent additional selling features for prospective buyers. Other leisure and outdoor amenities include low-impact sports courts, such as bocce ball and pickle ball courts, putting greens and dog parks, as well as large swimming pools for the residents and their visitors to enjoy.

How difficult is it to increase outdoor spaces at senior living communities in urban settings?

Zaharescu: This depends on the available spaces. The architecture of the building can help by providing balconies or rooftop terraces for social spaces. Small gardens or patios on the ground floor can expand front entrance courtyards for more open-air seating area, while the incorporation of walkways with closely spaced seating areas around the facility are always good solutions.Please tell us a few details about one of your most recent projects and how you implemented future-forward design to serve seniors for years to come.

Zaharescu: John Knox Village is an upscale retirement community in Pompano Beach, Fla. Envisioned for several important updates in the years to come, the 65-acre campus has 800 residential units and two lakes with abundant waterfowl, all located in a lush tropical setting with rare specimen trees.

The first-phase improvements included updating the aquatic complex, as well as designing a new residence tower and adjoining amenities. The original pool, located nearby the existing Village Center Auditorium, was quite small and lacked shade. We worked with the client to design two new, larger pools, including a lap pool for endurance-focused exercise and a leisure pool for water aerobics and other fitness/social activities. 

A large shade sail system covers the leisure pool as well as the sports courts, thereby allowing the residents to enjoy these facilities without fearing the strong Florida sun. The pool deck offers comfortable chaise lounges for residents to stretch out, relax and soak up the scene, and a series of alcoves cater to more private moments around two fire pits and seating areas with armchairs and umbrellas.


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The new Aquatic Complex is a significant upgrade for John Knox Village and has proven quite popular with residents who are enjoying multigenerational fun in the sun—and shade—around the pool. Since being completed in March 2021, the larger pools have proved a major draw for all residents as well as their visiting family and friends.

The next phases of our renovation will see the creation of a pavilion and a living tower, designed around an extension of the lake. The project will further maximize outdoor living with several dining areas, walking paths around the lake and covered canopies, as well as a fourth-level amenity deck with outdoor grill and putting greens.