In continuation of our “Design: A New Way Forward” series, we explore the senior living industry and how it will adapt after recent global events. We have previously delved into the emerging trends in senior living environments and believe these trends are being accelerated along with the following design ideas to adapt to a safer future.

Senior living communities have been greatly affected during this year as concentrations of elderly people are proven highly susceptible to health concerns. The recent pandemic has shown a decrease in senior housing occupancies of up to 5 or 6% and an increase in costs related to staff and protective supplies. Over the long run, however, the demand for senior housing will pivot as the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2030, one in every five Americans will be of retirement age and will outnumber children for the first time in history.

At SGPA, we evaluate this prediction as an opportunity to create ways for senior living communities to support the increase in resident necessities while preparing for future pressures. Our team of design enthusiasts believes that the following ideas will innovate senior living facilities for the future while sustaining hospitality and comfort. 

Hands-Free Fixtures and Functionality

The use of technology has become more prevalent in senior living as residents adjust to communicating with their loved ones and health professionals through digital platforms. Another way technology may impact senior living is through replacing manually operated fixtures such as lighting, temperature controls and curtains to be mostly touchless. This idea not only encourages sanitary practices but also alleviates gradual joint and muscular atrophy that many senior residents face. Hands-free technologies have been integrated into senior living facilities through motion-control plumbing fixtures, door sensors and elevators but may also be incorporated into the designs of private rooms.

An emerging hands-free technology that is becoming more and more used by seniors is voice activated artificial intelligence. Many senior communities are already using virtual assistants like Alexa or Siri to interface with technology, and the potential of these voice activated technologies is being expanded daily. Beyond the exponential capabilities of this technology there is one very important factor for seniors – that it is easy to use. Compared to more techy gadgets of the recent past, voice activation does not require training, dexterity, or mobility to use – just a voice and wifi access. Virtual assistants can control countless smart home devices, but they can also provide an easy way for staff and residents to communicate while limiting contact. The days of the bulletin board announcing all community events and menus can now be replaced with a simple question that the resident can ask from their apartment, “what’s for breakfast today?”

Increase in Private Outdoor Spaces and Natural Ventilation

Everyone has an innate attraction to nature and natural processes; this is known as Biophilia.  Whether it is feeling the sun on your skin, the touch of a flower petal, or the smell of fresh cut grass on the breeze, a connection to the outdoors is a part of human nature. In senior living communities more prospective residents are requesting access to outdoor areas from their private rooms. Especially in California where we enjoy some of the best weather on the planet, designs need to incorporate the beauty and comfort of our natural environment. Having outdoor connectivity and fresh air is also important to the health and wellness of an individual, especially during a time of sheltering-in-place. Senior living architects and designers are specifying larger operable windows and designing communities to include a myriad of outdoor areas, whether they are private balconies, secured courtyards, rooftop decks, or gardens. Safe outdoor areas designed for ease of use for seniors must include non-slip surfaces, smooth transitions with no abrupt elevation changes, convenient seating options, shade, and security. Designing these areas for flexibility allows the community to easily reconfigure outdoors areas for small socially distant gatherings, wellness activities, or more private contemplative use. Small yet impactful additions like fountains that produce the sounds of trickling water and seasonally flowering plants can help transform these spaces into destinations for residents.  Future designs must find solutions to safely maximize access to nature.

Smaller Neighborhoods

Senior living providers are choosing to compartmentalize their larger campuses into smaller, self-contained “neighborhoods” where residents can live, socialize, and dine together in smaller groups. These strategic layouts create a village-like atmosphere for long-term residents while also providing a pathway for infection control. According to this article from Senior Housing News, these pocket neighborhoods could be beneficial in urban areas where there are more senior living high-rises. Each floor would contain a limited number of units, serviced by smaller dining or social areas, and even smaller groups of staff.  These smaller gathering areas should be designed for flexibility and multi-purpose use so that when not being used for dining they can be easily transitioned to other uses. These smaller communities are appealing to both senior living providers and residents, providing a quality, social life while also assuring a higher attention to care and resident safety.

Flexible Housing Units for Staff or Visitors

Recent social distancing and shelter-in-place restrictions have limited the amount of traffic in and out of senior living facilities for the sake of staff and residents’ health. These new regulations have affected the staffing of these facilities as more care providers and health professionals are needed to service the at-risk senior population in new ways that can sometimes take longer than before. In addition, staff that used to provide services at multiple communities must now be restricted to one to limit their contact. With housing prices in California at an all-time high, it is very difficult to find talented individuals to provide care services in areas that lack affordable housing options. To address this critical staffing and housing shortage, many senior living communities have created interim housing solutions for staff using underutilized service areas such as storage areas, offices, and even vacant apartments. Future designs of senior living communities could include staff housing units on campus or nearby to react to increased hours and demand for care. Access to affordable housing units for staff or even resident family members would help senior communities attract top talent and offer residents more options to live close to family members.  

Dedicated Clean Room or Entrance Vestibules

“Clean rooms” can serve multiple purposes in a senior living facility. As a precursor into a lobby, visitors may use this entrance vestibule to have their temperature checked, hands sanitized, and remove any unnecessary additional accessories such as handbags or outer coats. Clean rooms can also serve as sanitary meeting spaces for loved ones to visit senior residents, separated by transparent partitions. These meeting rooms can be equipped with communication devices like intercom systems and phones. After each visit, the staff would sanitize the room to prepare for the next visit. Having “clean rooms” allow senior living staff and residents to limit infection and disease spread while also assuring thorough sanitization in trafficked areas. With social isolation being detrimental to the health of the senior population, it is important for communities to facilitate communication and interactions of residents in safe and secure ways.

Senior living architects and designers have been preparing for the inflation of prospective residents as Baby Boomers enter retirement age. After this year, placemaking for senior living communities will also prioritize better infection and disease control as the senior population continues to increase. With these design ideas, we believe that we can continue to create hospitable and comfortable permanent living spaces and communities for the elderly population while adjusting to evolving resident expectations and concerns. We all hope to be past this current situation soon, and once we get to the other side the new designs and how care is provided to seniors will be even better than before.

Posted in: Design: A New Way Forward Senior Living