By Philippe Saad, Principal, DiMella Shaffer
Mention senior living to people and the images evoked are often less than exciting, especially for those who value both an independent and connected life. The pictures that come to many minds are often ones of isolated living with marginal interactions beyond other residents and occasional family visits.
Even in a multi-generational household with parents living with their children and possibly grandchildren, the loss of independence can lead to feelings of isolation and depression, even with the energy of three-generational living.
It may sound obvious, but most people don’t want to be isolated, and those in their senior years are no different. However, traditional models for senior living over the past several decades have been designed on the premise of self-containment, whether in communities that are gated and separate from the outside community or in large communal facilities with secure entrances and on campuses that, while beautiful, are isolated.
There have been tremendous advances in the design of spaces for group living, whether on the collegiate level in student housing or on the urban and suburban levels with mixed-used developments. Recent trends include multistory developments with first-floor restaurants and retail below apartments, to whole neighborhood developments with trails, amphitheaters and grocery stores within walking distance. But senior living has been slow to adopt lifestyle integration into designs.
People today live in an ever-connected world, whether through technology or transportation. People have expectations for what they define as a high-quality life. For developers and operators of senior living communities, this presents an opportunity to redefine what it means to live as a senior, especially as society is faced with a rapidly aging population.
Place-making versus care-taking
According to the last U.S. Census, the number of people over the age of 55 grew by 27 percent between 2010 and 2020. More notable, the number of people over the age of 65 more than doubled as baby boomers continue to age. Government estimates project the population over the age of 65 will reach almost 81 million by 2040.
Noteworthy is how this generation of aging adults differs from the previous generation. They are living longer, and they are living more actively. They are engaged in the arts as well as civics, and many continue to work, especially now with remote work technology post-COVID.
This is not to say they don’t suffer from ailments and health issues that often lead people to choose senior living over a single-family home. Yet, even with such health concerns, the current and up-and-coming senior population has lived a more dynamic life that influences what they expect from living in their senior years. From good restaurants to accessible parks and quality retail services, older adults are seeking access to entertainment, recreation and amenities that are similar to those in their younger years or mid-life.
More than complicating the design for senior living, this trend is opening a new world of diversification and engagement for developers who see integration with the community as a model to boost operations while creating market differentiation in a growing senior living sector.
A prime example of this would be in Lexington, Mass., where a phased renovation and addition is bringing amenities that serve both the seniors living in the development as well as the community surrounding it. The addition at Brookhaven, called the Andover Building, features a new, state-of-the-art, 300-seat performing arts center that is open to both the residents at Brookhaven as well as the public. It encourages the community to come in for concerts and other events and provides Brookhaven’s seniors opportunities to mingle and interact with the community.
The success of the model is in the design, with the building connected to other Brookhaven structures, providing a secure and private entrance for residents. The general public enters through a separate entrance.
Outside of Londonderry, N.H., a mixed-use project for those 62 and over provides a different model to create a destination for both living and retail. Designed around a Main Street concept, The Baldwin includes sidewalks that give the development a more neighborhood feel, with each building having its own entrance and operating independently. A hair salon and grocery store serving senior residents have streetfronts and are open to the public. Trails connecting the development to the surrounding area also open the campus for recreational opportunities, like walking the dog or biking.
Like a water feature in a park with remote-controlled boats, the design itself is not radical. It is engaging and invites activity. It welcomes a cross-section of generations to mingle and interact, giving senior residents a chance to experience a complementary activity to their daily routine. The model proves that senior living facilities don’t need to be closed up with limited entrances in order to make seniors feel comfortable and secure.
Finding comfort flipping the script
This model of senior living can be thought of like an orange, except that it is turned inside-out to where the general public can see from the outside what is on the “inside.” It’s a different way of thinking for developers and operators, breaking from a model that is closer to a cruise ship — a contained environment where all the amenities are inside with no access to or integration with the outside.
To find comfort in this model is to see the implementation of it as achievable and desirable for residents, the public and investors. From a security perspective, it can be compared to a hotel lobby, where there’s a distinct line securing the rooms from the public, yet those coming in for the restaurant or bar feel invited and welcomed. Technology has opened new opportunities for seamlessly creating a secure area without raising hard barriers, and such technology can be utilized to help residents feel safe while not feeling isolated.
The mixed-use concept also opens new revenue streams for operators. While such projects can appear more complex to execute, in practice it not only diversifies the revenue portfolio, but it also creates market differentiation for those operating senior living centers in a growing market. It can also help a board see the potential in projects that may experience inflationary costs over the life of its construction.
Much of this new concept for senior living is based on the traditional principles of hospitality wrapped in multi-housing development. Like the Baldwin project, success is found in catering to the needs of the seniors in a variety of living arrangements — independent living, assisted living, memory care — with refinements such as colors, tones, cabinet heights and travel distances that help aging people navigate daily routines while also creating opportunities for activities that engage the senses and support overall well-being.
Integrated and inter-generational living can be challenging to see for developers and operators whose orientation has been toward the castle-on-the-hill model. Yet the success for such models can be seen in historical villages and towns around the world.
Small buildings in the middle of a small town provide access to meals both in the building and within walking distance of it. Nearby is also the grocery store and pharmacy. Parks are close. It’s an arrangement that provides support, yet enables independence.
Senior living is ripe for this kind of disruption. The next generation wants both meaning in their life as well as meaning in where they live. They want a sustainable building and community, and they want living that promotes social equity. They want choices, and they don’t want to lose that ability to choose simply because they’ve aged.
The palette is primed to paint a new picture of senior living for people who don’t want what has been traditional. The audience is evolving. Developments can evolve to meet that audience where they want to be.
Philippe Saad is a principal with design firm DiMella Shaffer.