Aging with Style

Interior designers are creating environments that support a resident’s whole family and community.

By Lynn Peisner

Interior design trends in seniors housing reflect a changing psychology of aging. Building exteriors are no longer modeled after stately, formal mansions adorned with Corinthian columns. Instead, they open up to the outdoors and to their communities, like welcoming but elegant resorts.

If only one word could summarize the spirit of today’s interior design it would be “inclusion.” Owners want communities that are designed to be inclusive of all generations of a resident’s family. Playgrounds and game rooms entertain the grandchildren while onsite amenities invite mother-daughter spa days.

“As cliché as it sounds, we wanted to make ‘grandma’s house’ cool and a place family members were excited about visiting,” says Jesse Marinko, president and CEO of Roswell, Georgia-based Phoenix Senior Living (PSL). 

PSL owns and manages 17 properties in the Southeast, but The Phoenix at Milton was its first ground-up development. The community, which opened in 2017, offers 67 units of assisted living and 19 memory care units.

Marinko was inspired by his personal experiences of visiting his own grandmother at PSL’s Dunwoody, Georgia, location to push the envelope in Milton alongside his interior design firm, Marietta, Georgia-based Banko Design. 

“Visiting my grandmother at that property with my three small children really opened my eyes,” he says. “We had to change the way families viewed our properties.”

This meant creating spaces for children to engage in activities via playgrounds, intergenerational game rooms and children’s tables in the dining room. Walking paths around the property encourage children to take a stroll with their parents, and the Wi-Fi signal is strong and steady throughout the property. 

While Wi-Fi is not an interior design detail per se, it complements a community’s programming objectives. Speedy Wi-Fi is a perk that families always appreciate and can even encourage them to visit for longer periods of time.

“In the past, you would see family members pick up the senior and take them out, as opposed to today’s more concierge-type services that make the communities for all to enjoy the amenities,” says Claudine Begay, director of design for Dallas-based Faulkner Design Group. The firm primarily works directly with developers of for-profit and non-profit communities across the United States, designing all levels of care.

Begay says residents want more options for dining, entertainment and other activities, including family-focused programming and amenities on-site.

“‘Intergenerational design’ is a buzz phrase right now,” says Melissa Spaeth Banko, principal of Banko Design. “We focus on designing spaces where all ages feel comfortable, but we also want it to be organic and to feel natural. We don’t want it to feel planned out. We don’t want residents or visitors to feel like they have to follow a program.”

Banko says putting this idea to work means creating spaces where spontaneous social interactions can easily occur. Her designs also subtly encourage mobility. Amenities are peppered throughout the building layout with small landing nooks throughout, all of which circle around central main amenities. “It creates a great little track for our residents to freely bump into each other.”

Architecturally, common area spaces are being turned outward to invite non-resident neighbors of all ages. Retailers like Aveda and Starbucks are showing up in some new communities, particularly as seniors housing moves out of the suburbs and exurbs and into downtowns. 

Inclusion even extends to staff. Designers report that owners are increasingly asking for upgraded spaces for staff members, an effort to boost morale, improve performance and decrease turnover.

The F Word

Regardless of whether it’s an active adult community or a memory care residence, some themes carry throughout. The connection between indoor and outdoor spaces is much more detectable in today’s model than in the fortress-like look of yesterday’s “facility.” Some design firms still use the “facility” word referring to the “residence.” Other designers even bristle at the word “seniors.”

“I think we need to find a new word,” says Diana Spellman, president of St. Louis, Missouri-based Spellman Brady & Co. “The connotation of the word does not define this population accurately. We are noticing that continuing care retirement communities have already started to change to life plan communities. Boomers won’t stand to be called ‘seniors.’ They are younger in spirit, active and vibrant, and want their communities to reflect those qualities.”

For Banko, hotel and traditional multifamily trends are the best models to follow as the seniors industry prepares to welcome baby boomers.

“We want our final product to remind people of the beautiful hospitality spaces they’ve visited or stayed in before. We’re on the forefront of making senior living communities not look like senior living communities. Seniors today are demanding more sophisticated and design-driven communities.”

Spellman says her firm is busy creating spaces that are engaging and interactive. “As designers, we are passionate about creating homelike spaces for engaging activities and experiences.”

For example, Spellman Brady & Co. completed the repositioning of Kingswood Senior Living in Kansas City in July 2017. The firm worked alongside an architect and the developer to build new venues of amenity space, such as an outdoor kitchen and fireplace and rooftop garden. 

“These special amenity spaces pay for themselves in added revenue through higher occupancy,” Spellman says. “Owners realize they need these amenity spaces to stay competitive in the market and for retaining staff.”

Jeanna Korbas, vice president of design with Aptura, also is creating spaces that aren’t so classically “seniors.” For example, she reports a waning preference for rehab gyms in independent living and lower-acuity environments in favor of a more straightforward fitness amenity. 

“The boomers are going to want to age in place for as long as they can,” she says. “The clinical piece is secondary. Yes, they need care, but they also have a lifestyle they want to maintain. There’s a totally different mentality as to why people are choosing to move into these communities.”

Communities and service

According to Brooke Mays, product designer at Temple, Texas-based Wilsonart Engineered Surfaces, senior communities today are placing a high value on being connected to neighbors. “Senior living campuses are choosing locations near existing community amenities or building public retail, restaurants and entertainment into their own facilities.”

In the spirit of including the public, community amenity spaces are being designed to be more outward-facing. Karla Jackson, design director at Austin, Texas-based StudioSIX5, says many new ground-up communities or redevelopments feature bistros, salons or coffee shops that have a front entry to welcome passersby so that residents don’t feel disconnected from the surrounding city. 

“We have one community with an Aveda salon, where people can come in from outside and have their hair and nails done right next to a resident,” says Jackson. “We’re seeing more big-name retailers like Aveda coming in. The salons are not the beauty or barber shops of yesterday.”

Good service itself is becoming its own amenity, and design is keeping pace with that trend, too. Highly engaged, concierge-level service is in demand, while the talent pool is small and retention can be difficult for some operators.

Jackson says her team is paying closer attention to the details in the staff’s environment, such as more ergonomic workstations and a greater attention to detail in the space and style of employee areas. 

“No longer can you have the employee lunchroom in some dark, windowless corner in the basement,” says Brenda J. Bacon co-founder, president and CEO of Mount Laurel, New Jersey-based Brandywine Living. “It doesn’t work.”

Brandywine opened a new community in Alexandria, Virginia, in May and is underway on another in Potomac, Maryland. Bacon says employee spaces are more important in new developments than they were in the past. “We have been talking about this as we designed our last building and as we are designing our next one.” 

As some owners seek to design and deliver calm, clean respite areas for their employees, others are encouraging staff to interact with residents more often. 

“Some owners are allowing staff to participate in salon activities with their families or designate hours they can eat in the dining room instead of eating in their own break room,” says Bacon. “Anything we can do to make employees feel confident about the company they work for is really important.”

Lighting, dining, outdoors

Technology and LED lighting are hot trends in design today. Five years ago, fluorescent lighting was in demand, while LED lighting was expensive and seemed fussy. However, owners are now discovering that LED lamps last much longer and aren’t as cost-prohibitive. Owners also like adjustable-temperature lighting, which mimics natural light from sunrise to sunset. This helps residents with dementia maintain healthy circadian rhythms.

Dining trends are changing the layout of food-service spaces as well. Jackson shares that StudioSIX5 is increasingly designing open kitchens and demonstration kitchens. 

“Studies have shown that when chefs can see the resident while they’re preparing the food, the quality of the food goes up. We’re also seeing less restrictive cooking technologies, where we design hoodless cooking or sous-vide. It’s a much cleaner way to cook.” Sous-vide is a slow cooking process in which food is placed in plastic or glass and submerged in water that is warm but that cooks at a much lower temperature. Cooking techniques such as this decrease the need for bulky ventilation hoods.

While gardens and raised beds have long been popular at senior living communities, Jackson says these features are in even greater demand, given the farm-to-table food trend. Residents today want to grow their own vegetables and include them in meals they share with the community.

Aspen Ridge, an independent living, assisted living and memory care community in Bend, Oregon, owned by Frontier Management, has been drawing attention with its hop-growing and beer-brewing program. In addition to enjoying pints at the property, the Aspen Ridge “Brew Crew” collaborates with a local brewery each year to release a beer where sales go toward funding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Outdoor spaces are also a la mode right now. Fifteen years ago, developers used to tell Jackson that residents don’t use outdoor space because they never go outside. Not anymore. “A lot of the amenity space is moving outdoors,” she says. 

StudioSIX5 is creating outdoor areas that include a variety of seating, outdoor kitchens, bocce ball courts, putting greens and dog walking and washing areas. 

At PSL’s Milton community, Banko wanted the intergenerational, interactive theme to carry through from the indoors to outside. Consequently, she worked with the team to design a playground directly next to a fire pit surrounded by soft seating, as well as a walking path around the building. 

“It’s about creating easily obtainable destinations,” she says. “Residents come out of the front of the building and they’re in this great outdoor space that provides them a place to gather and visit. Young visitors, adult children and residents are all able to be in the fresh air and enjoy the outdoor amenities.”