The Benefits of Borrowing from Other Sectors

by Jeff Shaw

How can senior living design benefit from ideas that stem from unlikely markets?

By Shannon Remaley

The next time you enter a senior living community, take a close look around. You may notice some design features that feel oddly familiar. For example, you might see a reception area akin to a concierge desk, luxury furnishings and materials adorning common areas, or ample amounts of natural light and diverse meeting areas of varying sizes. 

Today’s best senior living communities borrow best practices from various markets, including high-end hotels and innovative office designs.

As senior living designers and architects, our main responsibility is to create a space where seniors can thrive in a comfortable living environment that meets their needs.

Hospitality components set the tone

In hospitality design, there is an increased focus on creating a destination through a strong, consistent aesthetic that tells a story in every room. As you walk into a hotel, restaurant or any other hospitality environment, the specific design of the space, in addition to how you are greeted, creates an undeniable sense of arrival. 

We can replicate these features in senior living by ensuring there is always someone present to greet residents or guests upon arrival at a dedicated concierge desk and through a consistent design aesthetic. Through the use of color palettes, patterns and materials, we can create spaces that share the same story while each having their own unique personalities, ensuring a sense of continuity throughout a community while also establishing that each space serves its own purpose. 

Food and beverage areas within senior living communities also benefit from ideas that stem from hospitality design. Instead of one large, shared dining space, senior living designers and architects can lay out a dining area to include separate nooks, banquettes and private dining rooms that allow residents to have more intimate and purposeful dining experiences. 

A restaurant-style aesthetic can be created through varied seating options that feature luxurious materials, unique flooring and carpeting designs, and interior detailing that creates a sense of high-end dining. The addition of a demonstration kitchen to a shared dining area can integrate activities directly into the resident dining experience, activating this space so that residents can interact with dining in personalized and unique ways. 

As designers, we also work closely with operators to create spaces that complement dining experiences offered at their communities. For example, if a dining area includes a rustic pizza oven, we could weave in design features that enhance this dining experience. 

Employee experience is important

As senior living designers, we have always had a strong focus on the resident experience. But we must also prioritize the staff experience. This goal is particularly important coming out of the global pandemic. We can accomplish this by incorporating specific design elements that cater directly to the unique needs of staff and care workers utilizing ideologies present in workplace design.

Senior living staff play a crucial role in maintaining resident satisfaction and ensuring community functions run smoothly. Designers and operators can communicate the value of their staff by incorporating specific rooms and features strictly for their use throughout a community. This includes dedicated break rooms that feature ample amounts of natural light, easy access to outdoor spaces and elements of biophilia, including natural materials, shapes and, if possible, plants and green space. 

Adding separate, quiet wellness rooms can help staff feel supported and considered if they need privacy throughout the workday. We often see these elements incorporated into workplace design to create a workspace that is supportive, comfortable and engaging for employees. 

Designers also have an opportunity to take inspiration from evidence-based systems like the WELL Building Standard to incorporate specific design features that promote employee health and wellness. Even if WELL certification is not the goal, designers can incorporate WELL concepts such as movement, light, sound and materials into the design of employee-specific spaces.

Focus on wellness

In conversations with senior living owners and operators, we find an increased need for spaces within senior living communities that cater to the specific healthcare requirements of residents. Current communities typically feature a wellness room, doctor’s office or rehab area. As residents age, though, there may be a need for additional healthcare-specific rooms tailored to the delivery of more comprehensive care. 

When the time comes for additional health services, we can focus on evidence-based design to create robust healthcare centers in senior living communities that tend to the physical and mental health needs of residents.

Within healthcare design, there is an emphasis on how the physical environment impacts a person’s health. Designers can approach senior living with a similar mindset, considering the importance of certain color palettes, access to natural light and outdoor areas, and floorplan design, all of which can have positive physical and emotional benefits to residents. 

Through specific exercises that allow designers to immerse themselves in the physical experience of a resident, including creating personas and participating in dementia simulation experiences such as AGEucate, designers can develop a deeper understanding of how someone’s physical environment can impact his or her state of mind. We must take into consideration, too, that residents may be under a certain amount of stress when entering a space. 

Designers can then utilize the knowledge gained from these exercises to create spaces that are considerate of residents’ actual lived experiences and perceptions. 

Education acts as lifestyle offering

A unique amenity within senior living stems from a one-of-a-kind partnership between communities and local higher education institutions. Certain communities are prioritizing lifelong learning, working with local institutions to create university programs within their communities that are available to residents. 

These offerings push designers to think creatively about converting existing spaces into purposeful learning areas without reducing the flexibility of the room. When we as designers create spaces that are purposeful and dedicated — in this case, to learning — it can help inspire interest among residents, showcasing how the physical environment can help to enhance community programming. 

Education design has long been focused on sustainability. While there is a growing interest in sustainability among senior living communities, its level of incorporation into senior living design in the coming years will be highly influenced by resident demand and government regulation. 

When designing for senior living, it is essential to approach every project from a holistic perspective. By looking beyond traditional senior living design principles and incorporating best practices and ideologies from diverse design markets, designers and architects can more easily identify gaps in senior living design and continually move it forward.

Shannon Remaley, NCIDQ, IIDA, WELL AP, LEED Green Associate, is a principal at Meyer. She leads the strategic vision for the interiors and FF&E group in Meyer’s nationally recognized team. Under her leadership, Meyer’s Living Studio has designed and built award-winning communities that promote health, wellness and community.

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