Change usually takes time — often a LOT of time. But sometimes pivotal events modify our trajectory or priorities, thus speeding the progression of change. The pandemic has certainly been one of those course-altering events, especially for the senior living industry. But there also are other recent trends and developments that are making their mark on how the industry is evolving, particularly as it relates to senior living community design.

Let’s examine a few of these recent design-related trends.

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Health and safety design considerations

Senior living communities have strict protocols in place that help combat outbreaks of common illnesses like influenza and norovirus (often called the “stomach bug”). But the COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright light on gaps within the senior living industry’s infection prevention and containment practices. As a result, communities enacted a series of changes to help protect their residents from the highly contagious and dangerous coronavirus — things like visitor restrictions, strict quarantine guidelines, and revised cleaning procedures.

While some of these changes have been temporary in nature, some may result in more permanent shifts in the way communities are designed. Designers must be mindful of the fact that livability, comfort, and socialization are still priorities, however, balancing this with safety-oriented design elements.

For instance, going forward, materials that are more easily cleanable will likely become a priority when making selections for community furniture, flooring, and other high-touch surfaces. But comfort and aesthetics can’t be forsaken. Community entry points, visitor areas, and common areas also will be key considerations as future facilities are designed. These areas will need to be designed to be flexible and adaptable, but still welcoming and comfortable.

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Wellness-centric design

From indoor pools and workout facilities to group exercise classes to heart-healthy menus, wellness programs have been a focus for many senior living communities for several years now. But the industry is increasingly recognizing that the emphasis on wellness must extend to community design in order to further facilitate and encourage residents’ healthy habits.

A 2020 study by architecture and design firm Perkins Eastman uncovered several key strategies for promoting wellness via senior living community design. These include design elements that give residents more independence and control; encourage certain patterns of movement to foster exercise; create a comfortable, homey environment where social interactions happen naturally; and facilitate access to natural light and outdoor spaces.

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Evolving residence design

Other emerging trends may impact the way future independent living residences are designed at continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) and other senior living communities as well. For instance, the desire among a majority of seniors (6 out of 10, according to AARP research) to “age in place” — i.e., have any needed care provided in their own home — is influencing senior living design.

While “aging in place” is typically thought to mean remaining in a long-time home outside of a senior living community, the “age in place” model can be applied to residents of a CCRC as well. It might mean making design choices that would allow residents to stay in their original independent living unit even if they need some elements of assisted living care. This could include features like adjustable height counters and cabinets, wall reinforcements that can accommodate grab bars, and wheelchair accessibility considerations.

Another housing model that is making its mark on senior living design is the growing popularity of so-called “tiny houses” and “small houses,” which emphasize thoughtful design over size. This trend, which has taken off in the past few years, could have implications for both independent living and assisted living communities.

For independent living, some seniors are seeing the appeal of a smaller floorplan as they seek to maximize their downsizing efforts while minimizing upkeep and their carbon footprint. For assisted living, the small house model might include 10 or 12 suites that have a shared dining space and socialization/recreation areas. This model has particular appeal in the COVID-19 era since it gives assisted living residents a homey environment while also minimizing the number of people in shared spaces.

>> Related: The Environmentally Sustainable CCRC of the Future

Biophilic design elements

Biophilic design is a philosophy that facilitates the connection between people and nature, and it has been shown to have a positive effect on senior living residents’ sense of wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic gave an added boost to this increasingly popular design philosophy as senior living communities sought ways to allow residents to socialize safely outdoors and/or in areas with more air circulation.

Examples of biophilic design elements that may increasingly be included in senior living community designs in the future include:

  • Balconies, patios, and courtyards
  • Natural light via large windows, skylights, and windowed doors
  • Indoor and outdoor water features and plants
  • Building materials inspired by nature, both in color and texture
  • Covered walkways, walking trails, and gardens

Looking to the future of senior living community design

The senior living industry is constantly evolving to meet the demands of current and future residents. The top priority when making design choices should always be the health and wellbeing of the seniors who live within the community.

By incorporating the latest senior living design trends, such as the ones above, these communities are building places where seniors will want to live — where they will feel valued, safe, and supported.

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