Mixing It Up is the Future of Senior Living

Intergenerational, mixed-use communities offer more integration, fulfillment.

 By Diane Dooley & Philippe Saad, Dimella Shaffer

The past decades have seen a massive growth of senior living communities. Traditionally conceived as self-contained communities, the life plan community model has proved to be an attractive option to many older adults, offering maintenance-free living with a wide range of amenities and healthcare resources, all in one location, often gated or separate from the general community.

Enter the aging baby boomer population, with changing expectations about retirement, who are now demanding options for continued engagement within their communities as they age.

A recent study at Stanford University confirms the health benefits of an earlier social structure, one that promotes intergenerational connec- tions, cultivates a sense of purpose, helps in the development of soft skills, and benefits in forming meaningful interpersonal relationships.

In addition, the study found that by “promoting the well-being of the next generation, older adults experience fulfillment and purpose in their own lives.”

With these findings in mind, why are senior communities in the U.S. so frequently built as gated communities? And how might the current and incoming senior population, with their valuable experience and wisdom, be more successfully integrated within our communities?

Through our work, we have borne witness to what we believe to be the future of senior living communities: intergenerational, mixed-use developments.

Getting into the mix

Though the concept of mixed-use development took root for new con- struction in the early 2000s, the popularity of the approach has soared in recent years. The result is the transformation of millions of square feet across the country into pedestrian-friendly communities blending resi- dential, commercial, institutional, cultural and/or industrial uses.

Take Assembly Row in the suburbs of Boston, for example. The mixed- use development opened in 2014, touting itself as a “rare breed of shop- ping, living, working and playing,” and the result is nothing short of its expectations.

Assembly Row now has over 90 establishments, ranging from fitness studios, eateries and beauty salons to apartments, entertainment and everything in between. This inclusionary environment has attracted large groups of young millennials with disposable incomes and increased demand for more developments to live, work and play.

If the baby boomer generation causes the senior population to grow 17 percent and reach a whopping 70 million by 2030, why not incorporate space for them within these mixed-use communities?

Such intergenerational, mixed-use developments are currently being developed in Europe, such as Generationernes Hus in Aarhus Denmark, and by organizations in the U.S., such as Generations, a senior living and assisted living company out of Portland, Oregon.

This model is not yet being widely adopted, yet it has the potential to transform our country’s view of senior living.

Early adopters take the lead

One New Hampshire suburb is piloting the idea. Situated within a planned urban development, The Baldwin life plan community, currently in planning phases, will be easily accessible to the main street, with street-level restaurants and retail stores.

Community programmatic spaces and other group gathering spaces open to the public are also included in plans to promote intergenera- tional activity. These include outdoor plazas for community activities, an art gallery, a spa, a clinic and a theater, to name a few.

The development will provide seniors easy access to transportation, restaurants, services, healthcare and wellness, moving away from the internal and exclusive focus to an external focus that is inclusive of the adjacent community. 

Currently in its early development phase, Project Q will be a part of the urban core of Boston that is par- ticularly inclusive of the LGBT community. It provides housing and services to residents living within the building and also to the surrounding community.

Given its tight urban location, the project is developed with smaller apartments than the typical senior living community and fewer on-site amenities, given the available options within service-rich Boston. The lower floors of the building will include retail and amenities that will be open to the general population.

For senior living to broaden its appeal, the industry’s focus must shift to inclusionary, outward-facing environments for people of all ages. To create more inclusive senior communities, keep these key factors in mind:

Safety: As adults age to seniors, their vulnerability increases both emotionally and physically. To ensure that seniors, regardless of age, gender and mobility, feel safe in their environment, several safety precautions must be considered.

Find solutions to ensure that all parties can live comfortably without any risk to or from the public. At Brookhaven at Lexington, a traditional life plan community in the suburbs of Boston, a new performance center is being constructed that will be open to the nearby community. A separate building entrance and lobby were created for the performance center off the campus road to better facilitate access by the public.

Accessibility: Minimizing barriers by carefully integrating elements such as ramps, elevators, handicapped parking spaces and widened sidewalks are all simple and effective ways to make a community more accessible to seniors.

In addition to these examples, businesses within intergenerational, mixed-use developments can also make small accommodations that are inclusive to the older population. For example, provide brighter lighting and larger menu fonts in restaurants; accessible shelf height in grocery aisles; and modifications to the layout of clothing stores to increase pathway widths.

Integration: As one ages, daily life takes on a new form. Faced with the increased potential of isolation and related negative emotional effects, it is important to create environments that promote social inter- action. To encourage this through design, architects should pay careful attention not only to the buildings they design but also to the surround- ing environment.

Many cities have been increasing efforts toward becoming “age- friendly.” In 2017, the Milken Institute named Iowa City the best small city for successful aging, due to its dedication to locating services for seniors in residential areas, providing transit and recently approving an intergenerational co-housing project. As for Boston, DiMella Shaffer is supporting The Age-Friendly Boston Project to incorporate age-friendly aspects to our businesses, institutions and community groups.

While implementing a change of this level will not happen overnight, our society can start now by looking at senior living environments through a different lens. Erase the perception of seclusion and emphasize the “living” part of senior living. Whether it’s through intergenerational, mixed-use developments, adapting existing senior living communities to invite the general public or making the environment age-friendly, change is necessary to meet the expectations of future seniors.

Together, we can innovate new ways to promote positive environ- ments for aging, encourage inclusion, and develop and share knowl- edge about what makes for better living, working, playing and care environments.

Diane Dooley is a principal and Philippe Saad is an associate principal, both with DiMella Shaffer, an architecture, interior design, and planning firm in Boston.