As the American population lives longer, and generally more affluently, there’s been a boom in senior housing. What do potential residents look for when touring these properties? There are a number factors guiding the design intent for how these modern facilities are built.
That right there is the first key: modern. Just because the clientele is older, that doesn’t mean that they don’t yearn for fresh, clean and modern designs.
“Some people still have the vision of older nursing homes very solidly planted in their brain,” said Mary Cook, founder and president, Mary Cook Associates. “Nobody wants that.”
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As part of her interior design practice, Cook has designed a number of senior housing projects. While the residents may be at a stage in their life where they are looking to downsize, they generally still want the space to be an extension of themselves.
“We’re seeing a cleaner, more modern approach to interiors,” said Cook, “but really that’s holistically a trend for today’s modern design.”
Beyond simple aesthetics, there are very specific choices. New multifamily buildings often advertise game rooms, media centers and other spaces where residents can gather because that’s what renters say they want. In senior housing, the residents not only want these community spaces, they need them.
“It’s no secret that one of the biggest fights that we have in senior living is to prevent isolation and depression,” said Dave Pokorny, director of operations, Grand Lifestyles. “It really only takes one relationship to give someone purpose, so we really try to make the common areas welcoming and encourage getting people together.”
Grand Lifestyle operates a number of senior housing facilities in Illinois, such as The Grand at Twin Lakes in Palatine. The 15,000-square-foot space stages seating with purpose to encourage conversation. Chairs are clustered in twos and threes rather than theater-style or up against the walls.
Like many modern senior housing properties, The Grand at Twin Lakes has numerous amenities, such as a beauty salon, billiard room and library. But much of the common area—which comprise about 40 percent of the property’s footprint—is designed with flexibility in mind. The residents themselves, through their own interests and working with the site programming staff, have adjusted a couple of spaces.
“We had a gathering room that became a game room, we had a family room that’s now a jigsaw puzzle room because a group of residents were interested in that. We were able to make a sewing room in one of our properties,” Pokorny said. “I’ve seen a lot more flexibility in what the space can become depending on who lives there.”
Another key is functionality of furnishings—ensuring that the space is designed specifically for the population. Senior housing should be filled with furniture that’s easy to get in and out of, for example. Special attention should be given to lighting and acoustics, to accommodate those who perhaps can’t see or hear as well as they once could.
“With this demographic, if they can’t hear well in the space or easily get in and out of chairs, they aren’t going to say that. They just aren’t going to come anymore,” Cook said. “Keeping them engaged, physically, spiritually and mentally is key to wellness, so we want to make sure that we’re allowing them to live that way.”
Memory care wards require an extra level of design intent, to both protect and calm those residents who need that enhanced care. Memory boxes filled with old photos can signal to a resident that a particular doorway is their residence. Emergency exits might be slightly disguised with patterns or pictures to prevent elopement.
“The design should allow people to find a routine to maximize the level of cognition they have,” said Pokorny. “There’s a lot of thoughtful design that goes into memory care to assist residents in decreasing their anxiety and helping them function for as long as they can at that level.”
In the end, the design of a senior housing facility isn’t just about aesthetics. When properly implemented, the design—just as in a conventionally marketed space—can increase occupancy and value by understanding who the space is for and delivering to those needs
“Good design is not necessarily about spending the most money, it’s really about understanding your target market,” said Cook. “What are the demographic and geographic influences? What do they value, what are their beliefs and values? You then design to that versus employing a signature look and simply imposing the latest trend.”
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