5 Design Don’ts for Seniors Housing Communities

It’s important to consider mistakes to avoid, as well as features to add, during development.

By Mary Cook, Mary Cook Associates

Much has been written about the housing needs of seniors, with the focus — as noted by the National Council on Aging Care— mainly on what seniors want in design and amenities. Currently, these wants include multiple dining venues, integrated health and well-being offerings such as yoga and nutrition classes, and even lifestyle concierges for residents. 

But less has been written on the “design don’ts” — those features developers and seniors housing operators should avoid because they make everyday life more challenging for residents.

As design trends come and go, it’s prudent to instead concentrate on the basics so you can create more positive experiences for residents. Eyesight, hearing and even the sense of smell fade as seniors age. Mobility becomes more difficult. And the daily activities that used to come so easily to so many can cause frustration. All of these normal changes must impact design if operators are going to continue to meet the needs of aging residents. 

Here are five “design don’ts” that should be kept in mind when designing seniors housing facilities. 

  1. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Aesthetics 

Seniors today want and deserve to live in aesthetically beautiful communities. They want a variety of venues to spend time in and plenty of activities to keep them busy throughout the day. And, they want five-star service and cuisine. They’re also willing to pay for these luxury communities — some new high-end developments in New York start at $20,000 a month.

Don’t under-design them or feed into the stereotype that sophisticated interiors and senior living are mutually exclusive. That’s far from the truth. 

The bottom line: Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. It just has to be good design. 

  1. Don’t Forget to Address All the Senses

Remember that all five senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste — change as we age, so plan accordingly.

  • Sight. Visual acuity diminishes, so signs should contain large, clear lettering, colors should be vibrant and passageways kept free of objects. 
  • Hearing. Spaces should be designed to optimize acoustics, with soft surfaces that enhance sound and minimize background noise. Even Timemagazine has noted that music is well known to improve quality of life,so incorporate music, whether live performances or recorded, into the day.
  • Smell. Fabrics should be protected or treated to ensure they are easy to clean to avoid smells due to incontinence. Everything needs to be impermeable. When designing Willow Valley Communities, a life care community in Lancaster, Pa., we made sure to select textiles and materials for the upscale interiors that would protect the air quality and prevent odors from lingering if there was an accident. 
  • Touch. Touching and being touched is important for anyone’s wellbeing, particularly seniors, but certain illnesses and medications may reduce the sense of touch. The use of therapy animals can really improve quality of life and enhance not only bonding but also relaxation, especially for older individuals. So consider flooring and spaces where residents can interact with animals.
  • Taste. Taste buds dull as people age, as does the sense of smell, which also interferes with one’s ability to taste. Some medicines also impact the ability to taste. To encourage residents to eat, meals need to be delicious as well as healthy, and served in an attractive setting. Think fine dining, not cafeteria. 
  1. Don’t Select Furnishings That Ignore Basic Needs 

Select furnishings that enhance livability by improving way-finding or spatial problem-solving without compromising design.

  • Take into account the specific needs and limitations of residents. If residents struggle to move a chair from the dining table, they’re more likely not to return to the dining room rather than ask for help. Consider the weight, seat height, arm strength and size of furnishings. Firm seat cushions, shallow seat depths and chair arms for support while standing up all contribute to enhanced livability.
  • Use contrasting colors and patterns on different floors to help residents with wayfinding. If their unit is located on a blue floor, they will know instantly that they are not yet “home” if the elevator opens on a red floor. 
  • Encourage residents to take short walks throughout the day by including furniture groupings at elevator landings.
  • Design trim details with residents’ needs in mind. For example, using a chair rail with a deeper profile for leaning allows residents to stop and rest a moment or regain their balance. 
  1. Don’t Omit Adaptable and Flexible Spaces  

Amenity spaces should be adaptable and flexible for various times of day and various times of year. Gathering spaces should be usable for parallel events held in the same room. Furniture, lighting, sound systems and sliding walls are just a few of the features you can design for flexibility.

At Willow Valley Communities, we included a spacious, sun-filled corridor that’s an ideal space for residents to enjoy morning coffee, read the paper or enjoy the view. The furniture groupings are easily moved to the side for an organized event like movie night, a yoga class, guest speakers or special-interest-group meetings. The space can also serve as an overflow area for the dining room when there is a special guest event like a Mother’s Day brunch. 

  1. Don’t Overlook Opportunities to Inspire a Culture or Create Blue Zones 

It’s important to program activities and create spaces that inspire a culture among residents. Activities, friendships and participation can all contribute to this.  

For example, at Westminster Place, an independent-living community in Evanston, Ill., more than 40 special-interest groups gather regularly for fitness, theater, study, concerts, movies, games, etc. 

Incorporating spaces that encourage relationships and friendships among residents can not only improve wellness, but also increase longevity. Did you know there are communities in the world where people live virtually disease-free well into their hundreds? Examples include Ikaria, Greece and Okinawa, Japan. National Geographicconducted a study of these places, called Blue Zones, where no one ever loses purpose, no matter how old they are. Integrating Blue Zone methodology into your daily operations also can help retain and enhance residents’ self worth.

There may be no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s, but, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, “a number of studies indicate that maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age might lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.” Be sure to include spaces that encourage residents to create those social ties, too. 

When people are active physically, mentally and spiritually, wellness follows. Don’t forget to design to achieve those goals. 


Mary Cook is the founder of Mary Cook Associates, a national, award-winning commercial interior design firm based in Chicago.