How the changing demographic of senior living communities is affecting the design of these facilities
Gone are the retirement communities of old. Nowadays senior living spaces are more urban, service driven, often affiliated with nearby universities, and community-based with enhanced amenities. Today’s consumer is sophisticated, environmentally conscious, culturally aware, and interested in maintaining an active lifestyle while living in a senior living or intergenerational community.
The living room spaces set throughout the nursing level of NewBridge on the Charles are designed using high-end finishes and materials; floors are clad with Interface Ax Tile.
A full service continuing care retirement community (CCRC) offers independent living, assisted living, assisted living memory support (dementia care), and skilled nursing; most also have an acute-care portion of nursing—or short-term rehab (e.g. for someone in independent living who breaks a hip). This model has existed for decades: large in scale and physically isolated from the surrounding community. But now the model of care is changing for the better, becoming more integrated, and catering to residents whose lifestyles and habits are far different than those of their parents.
For one, we are seeing an increase in community-based living, which some call the household model, wherein 10 to 12 residents live in a small house setting, doing everything together and with trained nurses tending to their needs. This small house model occurs mostly at the nursing level, but also works for assisted living, as we trend away from 30- to 60-bed apartment wings and towards the culture of long-term care in smaller groupings.
In general, people are staying in their own homes longer before moving into a senior living community, at which point they migrate to the independent living areas with designs that allow some flexibility for combining units if necessary. Keeping in mind the needs of these active seniors, designers are creating fitness centers as full-service gyms, art rooms on par with professional art studios, and beauty parlors as full spas. And rather than just one dining room, several eateries with different menus and levels of formality offer variety.
The trending toward university-based models, in which retirement communities are in proximity to college campuses, helps satisfy the needs of active seniors who still want to be involved in fitness, wellness, and learning, as a university can offer those activities. For example, the university’s large fitness center or library could be shared with a nearby senior living community.
With greater influence from the hospitality industry rather than the medical model, the materials found in senior living communities have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Previously, few suitable products, such as solution-dyed carpet or other moisture-barrier fabrics, were available, but now there is a range of options. Overall, healthcare providers are now placing greater emphasis on a higher level of design. The challenge is selecting materials with a hospitality aesthetic that are both functional and durable since carts and wheelchairs can damage the interiors over time.
Another critical point for designers to consider is that this population lives in this setting 24/7. If all floors of a hotel look the same, visitors likely won’t mind because they’re staying for just a few days. But for those residing in a long-term community, diversity is key. Just as people don’t want to eat in the same venue every night, they prefer not to walk through 500,000 square feet of living space that all looks the same.
When dealing with wayfinding for seniors, using color or signage alone doesn’t work, so designers must employ unique combinations of color, signage, and landmarks. Some corridors might end with a work of art, while others with a grandfather clock, and others with a mirror or another distinct item. Flooring also comes into play with regards to wayfinding, as any change in materials denotes a different kind of space.
Generally, carpet selections for senior living spaces are highly driven by price. For independent living apartments carpeting must be residential in feel but not so thick that it impedes walking. Carpet tile functions well in nursing wings, memory support areas, and in assisted living facilities. Staff at the nursing level may be opposed to carpeting residents’ rooms, as many have worked on vinyl composition tile (VCT) for so many years. However, now that some high-performance modular carpet products rival VCT, a slow cultural change is happening.
The benefits of using modular carpeting in nursing areas include the ease of swapping out tiles if an accident should occur, less chance of injury due to slips and falls, and the acoustic advantages of sound absorption. And while it seems senior living facility managers are more comfortable with the quick-release adhesive backing, as opposed to a newer technology, like Interface’s TacTiles, that preference may be changing. It’s a gradual process of getting senior living staff to acknowledge shifting trends in demographics and the marketplace at large, and to embrace new materials, a new culture, and quite simply, an alternate mode of operation.