Busting 4 Myths of Interior Design in Senior Living

by Jeff Shaw

Residents require spaces that are well finished, but take unique needs into consideration.

By Melissa Banko

There are plenty of misconceptions around interior design and even more so in the world of senior living design. As someone with 15 years of experience in this industry, I’m here to dispel some of the more pervasive myths I hear and drop a few tips along the way.

  1. Senior Living is Just Multifamily for Old People

Let’s clear the air from the get-go. Multifamily, hospitality, and senior living design are three completely different verticals with three completely different programmatic, operational and interior design considerations.

Sure, you can have a top-notch senior community that looks like a multifamily project or even has a lovely boutique hospitality feel. As a firm that works in all three verticals, we absolutely pull inspiration from each market, but your building needs to be able to perform beyond the aesthetics, support and care, while still feeling warm and inviting for someone who will call this community home.

Every vertical that we design in requires specific expertise to have a successful result. This is true tenfold in senior living because our residents have unique requirements. It’s imperative that your design team guides programming and functionality, and understands specifications so that your asset stays relevant as long as possible. It’s also important that the interior selections are appropriate for the target market. Every specification — color, pattern, scale, durability, cleanability, marketability — must be thoughtful and tailored to the needs of seniors.

For example, one aspect of senior living design that differs greatly from other markets is that of light level and color. Yes, lighting can completely change how a building looks and feels, but seniors require specific lighting elements that would not be specified in multifamily or hospitality.

Throughout a senior living project, we constantly ask ourselves if a senior will be able to use the space safely and comfortably, and we make decisions accordingly. At the end of the day, what’s the point of a beautiful building if it’s not being utilized and enjoyed to its fullest potential by those living in it?

  1. You’re Designing for the Adult Child, Not the Resident

In sales, many may be tempted to cater to those they think are making the final decision and signing the lease, but that’s the wrong attitude. At the end of the day, the adult child or family member touring the property on behalf of their loved one wants them to be happy in their new home. Developers and all consultants involved should prioritize the needs and preferences of the seniors who will live their life in the community.

From the moment we’re brought in, our goal is to support our owners, operators and sales teams by designing and programming buildings that support best care practices, but also feel inviting, comfortable, fresh, safe and clean for our seniors. By designing intentionally for the senior’s comfort, your project will be more marketable and will result in happier residents and happier clients.

  1. It’s Okay to Use the F-Word (Facility)

At Banko, we never ever use the F-word. “Facility” has a negative connotation and an association with medical and institutional models. We’re doing all we can as an industry to create spaces, buildings and master neighborhoods where seniors want to live, entertain and socialize. It’s possible to blend attractive design and functional program; you just have to find the designers that know how.

We design spaces at all care levels that feel like the residents’ homes, but better. This allows seniors to transition to their new home with excitement and dignity. If we keep using “facility” or phrases like, “being put in a home,” it won’t drive sales or the acceptance of our seniors.

My suggestion? Use “community.” Use “neighborhood.” Use the exact name of the building, but let’s all agree to nix the word “facility.”

  1. Designer = Decorator

An interior designer and an interior decorator are not interchangeable. Your family member or your friend of a friend may be “good with color” and may have a great source for decorative pillows, but true interior design on a commercial level requires so much more than picking out the “pretties.”

Each of our designers holds an interior design degree or an interior architecture degree and is expected to draw to the level of an architect, understand building systems and be able to coordinate it all.

The best interior design is integral, not topical. Not only will designers decide what kind of sink and vanity a bathroom should have, but they’ll also decide on where plumbing should be located. We will ask ourselves questions like:

  • What kind of millwork should be done in each space?
  • Is lighting coordinated with the furniture plan?
  • Are electrical, appliances, and other items needed for functionality placed where they are most practical?

These questions are among many considerations for each major component of the building.

Because there’s so much more to interior design than picking out furniture, paint and fabrics, it is essential that designers are brought in as early as possible to get the most value and to specify the best possible finishes and fixtures possible that fit within the budget. When brought in early, designers can coordinate, plan and manage budget with all consultants rather than stepping on toes, performing double work or asking for costly change orders to be made. If you’re on the market for a designer, do yourself a favor and bring them on board in the beginning; you’ll thank me later.

If you’re looking for an interior designer for your new senior living community, do your research, choose a firm with expertise in that field and bring them in as soon as possible. To the designers, remember that the key to great senior living design is to balance functional and practical care with charismatic and beautiful design. Let’s all work together to create stunning spaces that give dignity and purpose to all seniors, no matter their care level or requirements.


Melissa Banko is founding principal of Banko Design, a full-service interior design and procurement firm that specializes in the senior living, multifamil, and boutique hospitality markets.

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