The Next Generation of Senior Living

Why some senior communities are taking hints from residential and hospitality design to stay ahead of the curve

03/01/2013 By Margie Monin Dombrowski

There’s really no other way to say it: We, as a society, are getting older.

According to the data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry (NIC), as of 2010, approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population—approximately 19 million people—were aged 75 years or older. What’s more, most estimates expect that number to grow steadily over the next decade, and then accelerate as the baby boom generation progresses in retirement.

That translates to an increased demand for senior housing, which (in theory) points to improved business prospects for the design industry. The NIC says that there are currently about 2.9 million beds in nearly 22,100 senior housing and care properties (and more than 519,000 beds in 6,921 assisted living properties), bringing the market capitalization to an estimated $250-$270 billion.

But these demographic shifts also mean that we must re-envision the idea of senior living itself. As more and more of our family members enter these facilities, how can we create safer, more welcoming spaces?

“Much of [senior housing] now is leaning more toward hospitality,” says Victor Regnier FAIA, professor of architecture and gerontology at the University of Southern California. “It’s a little more contemporary and hip. It doesn’t look back, it looks very ‘now’ and forward.”

Although baby boomers aren’t quite at the stage in life where they need senior housing, they’re the force driving this trend. “The buyer making the decision is a boomer,” says Regnier. “Eighty percent of the time it’s the older daughter. They’re in the 40 to 50 age range, so they have a contemporary taste. They want it to be different, a little more hotel-like and less a traditional senior residential environment.”

“We’re doing less traditional, more transitional design,” says LuAnn Thoma-Holec, ASID, principal owner of Mesa, Ariz.-based Thoma-Holec Design, LLC. “We still make it feel like home, but it’s edgier and has cleaner lines than what we did 10 to 15 years ago.” Color choices can be tricky, considering that seniors have difficulty seeing blues and greens, so Thoma-Holec tends to use contrasting vibrant, warm colors. She selectively uses trendy hues on low-cost items such as wall colors, fabrics and pillows. “It’s not easy for the communities to remodel on a regular basis, so it’s important to use colors that have longevity and won’t appear dated in a short amount of time.”

These communities aren’t solely aimed at appealing to residents—they’re also marketed to the entire family. Doing so requires programming multigenerational activity areas that work just as much for the residents as they do for visiting children and grandchildren. Incorporating areas for spiritual activities such as a chapel, and wellness and fitness areas with tai chi, spa and massage therapy are just some examples, suggests Adrienne Akin Faulkner, RID, LEED GA, IIDA, ASID, founder of Faulkner Design Group in Dallas, Texas. Faulkner says these modern resort-inspired leisure areas are included because “baby boomers understand it.”

Still, these spaces have to be flexible. Dining rooms in particular require enough space for traffic and mobility devices. “We try to find architectural design solutions that create adequate ‘parking’ space for a mobility device to be in proximity to the owner, but also can be tucked under or articulated into the overall design, so you don’t have walkers in the middle of the dining room,” says Faulkner.

Connecting these various destination areas is also important. Case in point: Atria Tamalpais Creek in Novato, Calif. previously had a circuitous path leading to multiple buildings, making it unwelcoming, but breaking it down into several destination areas with strategic programming made it work. The redesign includes the smart use of indoor and outdoor spaces that puts related activities side by side.

“Wherever possible, because it’s in California, there are a lot of outdoor terraces and patios adjacent to the living spaces,” says Kimberly Frank, interior design principal with GGLO in Seattle, Wash. For example, a community bistro where cooking demonstrations take place is attached to an outdoor terrace that’s used for barbecues. Some patio walls are at hip height so they can double as seating. “They were designed to create intimacy in smaller areas, and rooms outside of rooms.”

specifying for seniors
In creating a comfortable atmosphere for seniors, special consideration must be paid to flooring, furniture and lighting. Fall prevention is a significant safety issue for these facilities, meaning that flooring must be slip-free. Moisture barrier-backed carpets are ideal, and bleach cleanability is a plus, but some budgets may not allow for it, notes Thoma-Holec, who uses hospitality-style patterns but is careful to avoid overwhelming patterns. Rubber flooring from companies like Johnsonite and nora systems can also provide increased friction to reduce falls without making a space look institutional.

The furniture found in senior living spaces is similarly following the hospitality trend. For example, designers liked the transitional look of Kellex’s hospitality seating, but “from a dimension and cushion perspective, it doesn’t always work,” says Jennifer Showers, director of national sales for Kellex. “After years of trying to make the furniture work, we started the Tranquility line. All the dimensions are specific for seniors—they’re easier to get in and out of” with the right arm heights and firm but comfortable cushions.

With Crypton fabric and removable seat decking, the Tranquility line is cleanable and can withstand spills and incontinence. “We draw from high-end residential design to make them look a lot less institutional. We can provide a stylish transitional piece, but still make it appropriate for senior living,” says Showers.

Lighting is also critical because seniors’ eyes transition more slowly to changes in light, says Shelley Wald, president of WAC Lighting. Pathways and passageways need to be well-lit without producing glare. “Seniors are more perceptive to glare, so it’s more bothersome.”

Instead of more recessed downlights, Wald recommends indirect light such as a wall wash to increase general lighting. Adjustable task lighting that lights a surface, such as a desk or under a kitchen cabinet, works better than increasing general lighting. On stairways, she suggests adding lighting on the stair treads themselves instead of wall sconces.

Newer capabilities include adjustable lighting that’s blue during the day and amber at night so that the blue light doesn’t interfere with melatonin levels. This helps seniors, who are more sensitive to blue light, rest easier at night. Many lighting manufacturers are also introducing new lines that meet ADA requirements but are residentially influenced. “We’ve gotten feedback that we need to design good-looking fixtures that look homey but also meet these medical facility requirements,” says Wald. “We’re addressing that with more decorative options.”


Margie Monin Dombrowski is a freelance writer and interior design student based in Orange County, Calif. She frequently writes for interior design publications and creates copy for businesses on design topics. Find her online at


The Older Population: 2010, from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Frequently Asked Questions page, National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry.


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