We Must Create Active Adult Environments within Senior Living Communities

by Jeff Shaw

By Jason Erdahl, principal, director of senior communities, Ankrom Moisan 

Nursing and residential care facilities lost more than 145,000 workers over the last two years, according to the National Center for Assisted Living. Between staff shortages and increased budgetary concerns for staffing in the senior care market, a solution is necessary to support the growing aging population. 

While staff members are still very much needed to assist those residing in these facilities, architects and designers can answer the call for help by creating spaces that aid residents in doing daily tasks on their own while engaging in a more active lifestyle. 

Creating senior living communities with more “active adult” opportunities for residents to engage in is a smart and viable option for many communities. This design concept helps motivate seniors to become more independent and active, encourages socialization among residents, and offers conveniences to staff members at facilities with ongoing shortages. 

Impactful elements include the addition of walking paths and gardens to encourage residents to be more active on their own, dining halls and game rooms for socialization, and technological touchpoints to feel more connected to one another. Active adult environments can improve the well-being of residents and give them the independence to take part in various activities both indoors and out.

Connection through nature and socialization

The idea of incorporating active environments into assisted living properties is heavily inspired by lifestyle, learning and wellness amenities. When designing these spaces, it is important to offer a variety of choices and to incorporate areas that encourage socialization, connection and spaces that improve one’s well-being. Some of these areas include cafes, theaters and arts and crafts rooms, as well as health and wellness centers with exercise rooms, aerobics spaces and swimming pools. 

When creating these active environments for seniors, it is also important to incorporate elements of nature. For example, biophilic elements help support physical and mental wellness with access to the outdoors, natural light, fresh air and materials that are found locally with healthy qualities. \

The replication and integration of natural patterns, textures and colors helps support cognitive function, reduce stress, lower blood pressure and positively impact mood. 

For example, for Ankrom Moisan’s recent project, Napa of Meadows in California, the design team included multiple dining venues for residents — casual bistros and fine dining options — that overlook Napa Valley with stunning views of wine country to connect seniors with the nature they are surrounded by. 

Creating areas at these facilities where residents can physically connect with nature is vital. The addition of outdoor patios, gardens, lounge spaces and walking paths is essential to help seniors remain active and take a moment to enjoy the environment. 

Another element to consider is natural light. Studies have shown that providing brighter environments for seniors helps improve sleep quality and patterns. Creating these areas with daylight has a positive effect on seniors — exposure to natural light during the day helps regulate residents’ internal sleep-wake schedules by syncing with their bodies’ circadian rhythm, which in turn will help with energy levels throughout the day.

Strategically locate amenities

The location of these amenities also helps play a role in promoting an active lifestyle for seniors. A popular design choice many architects and designers integrate within senior living are hubs. 

These hubs create a centralized grouping of amenities to foster socialization and activity while creating convenience and easy access for residents. The hubs typically contain all the amenities within one area including food services, entertainment, and health and wellness programs. 

More specifically, we like to design an opportunity center, which includes an activity and program concierge’s lounge located at the intersection of most amenities. This provides personal or digital assistance while seniors plan out the day. 

Be adaptable and versatile 

In low-acuity care settings, architects and designers must take into account that these spaces are designed for those who are aging. Therefore, creating spaces that are flexible, adaptable and allow for diversity in capability is paramount. 

Specifically, when designing activity and amenity spaces, flexibility is key as many buildings do not have the space to accommodate all of the activities that might be beneficial for the residents. Providing common spaces for amenities that can change and adapt throughout the day allows staff and residents to have more fulfilling experiences. For example, a common room can host yoga classes in the morning and then bingo that afternoon.

When it comes to apartment units, designing spaces where seniors can entertain family and friends is also key as it encourages seniors to socialize with loved ones in their own private space. This means a large, flexible floor plan that provides seniors with access to appliances that are within reach and are able to be operated in order to prevent accidents. 

Other elements that help cater to the active adult environment include incorporating large dining rooms, a living area that can transform into a bedroom for visitors, and access to the outdoors from the unit — ideally a fenced-in patio with raised garden beds.

Build tech-savvy spaces

Technology plays a huge role in senior living design and in encouraging residents to be more active. We are designing buildings with technology infrastructures, with both wired and wireless technologies, to accommodate the increase in device usage. 

The integration of strong Wi-Fi systems supports the use of mobile devices, helping residents engage with the community through local digital messaging boards where they can stay up to date with any news and happenings. 

Additionally, smart-home technologies and building automation for fixtures, appliances and systems allow residents to not only be more connected and engage in more fitness activities, but feel safer with tech devices that monitor their health. For example, the addition of lighting controls that change throughout the day and when residents are active improves safety. The use of induction cooking equipment limits burns and accidental fires. 

The role of architects and designers is crucial in developing designs that support the aging population and where they live, connect with others and focus on their wellness. Through careful considerations, as it relates to amenity spaces, technology, and building-wide flexibility and versatility, architect and design professionals can create active adult communities that foster independence, socialization and convenience. 

With the integration of these innovative design concepts, we can strive for a future where the aging population receives the care and support they deserve while maintaining a sense of independence and engagement in their daily lives.

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