Jennifer on Design: Senior Living Trends

Jennifer Busch

Byron Kuth, a principal of Kuth Ranieri ( in San Francisco, calls it a “demographic tsunami,” and questions whether anyone is ready to meet the demand that is coming—and coming fast. He is talking about the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946 to 1964) that is just now beginning. “We are currently looking at 40 million people over the age of 65, and within 20 years that number will double,” says Kuth. “Is anyone prepared for these proportions?”

Kuth Ranieri and two other firms with expertise in senior living—SmithGroup ( and Perkins Eastman (—are among those trying to address the challenge, but admittedly the senior living segment is a slow-moving beast. Currently hampered by the nation’s economic woes, the industry has suffered reduced occupancies, bankruptcies, and a credit squeeze that has stifled new development. And that’s just the business part. Massive cultural shifts are also afoot. “This generation re-scripted how we were raised and educated, what we did abroad, and everything about technology,” says Kuth. “Now it will radically re-script this later stage of living and working.” On the positive side, with numbers like the ones Kuth is quoting, growing demand in the senior living market has no choice but to ignite opportunity for developers, operators, and designers in the coming decade and beyond.

Undoubtedly, our traditional view of senior living—warehousing aging individuals away to play chess and watch television in massive institutional buildings that were plunked down in the middle of cornfields—has given way to an active, enriching, more assimilated version of retirement that is spawning new models for senior living. Consumers of these services are more sophisticated and are living longer, healthier lives, making the goal of the industry to provide options for occupancy by choice as opposed to occupancy by need, according to David Segmiller, a principal in the Charlotte, N.C., office of Perkins Eastman.

Katy Darling, an associate also at Perkins Eastman Charlotte, explains that there is a great demand for amenities and choice–including gyms, movie theaters, grocery stores and other forms of retail, variety in dining options—in contemporary senior living settings, and these provide fertile ground for marketers attempting to attract new customers with a focus on lifestyle, rather than end of life. “This population wants much more diversity, and this will be driven exponentially as the Baby Boomers come along,” Darling says. Segmiller describes “amenities on steroids.” For example, in today’s senior living facilities the traditional beauty/barber shop has become a day spa. “This population is crying out for more sophisticated options that are more about typical daily life,” he says.

The demand for diversity and activity translates into senior living communities that bear much greater resemblance to mixed-use developments than they do to their traditional, institutional precursors. It all adds up to a more holistic way of life for seniors. “Older CCRCs (continuing care retirement communities) had community rooms and exercise rooms as little gestures,” says Joyce Polhamus, vice president and director of SmithGroup’s senior living practice. “Now they are not just amenities for socialization, but are more about purposeful and healthy living.” They also speak to assimilation into the broader community, as entire senior living campuses are being integrated into existing suburban and urban communities with which they share amenities and services.

Other emerging models include the Green House® senior living concept, which emphasizes community-based, family-like “homes” for people who like to live with companionship. “This model serves people in a dignified way, and counteracts loneliness, boredom, and isolation,” explains Polhamus. Residents of a Green House partake in all the typical activities of a family—including cooking, cleaning, and decision-making—and staff are expected to pitch in with many day-to-day activities in addition to elder care. Though the most typical location for a Green House is a suburban neighborhood, urban, high-rise models are beginning to make an appearance.

One interesting model that Kuth currently is studying, UBRCs (university-based retirement communities) integrates senior living communities with academic campuses, recognizing that these populations share a need for similar amenities within the confines of manageable distances. The idea is that members of each community can contribute to the other in meaningful ways, with the added benefits of inter-generational knowledge and culture swaps.

Stepped care—the ability to age in place—continues to be an important trend, even if the definitions are changing. “Assisted living used to be so close to the skilled nursing units that no one wanted to go there,” says Segmiller. “Now we move AL to the other side of the campus and give the residents access to the same amenities as the independent living people.” This helps eliminate the stigma of moving to assisted living. “There used to be the perception that moving through that one door meant moving to the end of life,” he adds. Memory care, or care of patients with dementia, is also taking on a much less confining and much more active nature, with appropriate activities like wander gardens and other pockets of interest figuring significantly in the architecture and planning of the structures and grounds. According to Polhamus, memory care will be the biggest growth area in senior living for the next 15 years.

Skilled nursing facilities do reflect a more hospital-like environment because of the necessary level of medical care, but across all these facility types the style trends are moving away from the traditional and toward the contemporary. “The style is very transitional now,” says Segmiller. “We are doing work that 10 years ago would have been considered way too modern. Today it is considered accessible.”

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