Designing for Senior Living Communities from the Perspective of the User

January 17, 2020
MA Design

Designing for senior living communities comes with a particular set of design challenges due to its specialized nature. These communities are the home of people who have worked their whole life to finally enjoy their golden years, and with it, carries a certain responsibility as a designer to meet them with a space they deserve and that fits their changing needs. Empathy, compliance and innovation must remain a priority in the human-centric design approach, and there is no one to better articulate what those specifics are than those that call these places home.

As designers, we are trained to recognize specific codes and regulations, but as humans that incorporate end users’ wishes into the built environment, I found myself curious to learn more. Instead of guessing, I wanted to start asking better questions—and better yet—to the right people. I felt volunteering would provide not only a learning opportunity but also be a great way to make some new friends and learn how I could directly answer the needs of those for whom I am designing.

It is a fairly standard architectural practice to know the audience your building is designed to cater to, but by spending time in existing facilities, you can learn even more of how these spaces impact the individuals living in them and have a deeper understanding for the design. Through volunteering at a senior living community, I have witnessed how careful attention to design has impacted the people in those spaces. The following are five points I have taken away from my time volunteering, specifically with memory care residents. These items are not necessarily new concepts, but sometimes get forgotten along the way.

Avoid Furniture that Sits too Low to the Ground

This may be a Senior Living Design 101 tip, but making sure you are consistently selecting seating that is the right distance from the ground makes all the difference in the world to residents and staff members. All seating, including soft seating, should be at least 19” in height. It is also helpful to select furniture that has arm rests for support. This helps residents maintain their independence by being able to stabilize themselves. While talking with staff members, I learned this is important for them as well. It is difficult to lift a person out of a chair on your own, therefore any design features that can improve on this, is appreciated by the staff.

Bathroom Size

We design to meet accessibility requirements, but often this is not enough for seniors who need the assistance of staff members to navigate the space. Making sure bathrooms meet accessibility requirements is very important, but designing so they are accessible for those needing assistance is just as important. Bathrooms for seniors should be designed with enough room to maneuver a wheelchair, walker, or have an aide for assistance. This has a huge impact on the ability of the seniors to use the space with comfort and ease. In addition, the space should be designed so that it feels like a residential bathroom, not one located in a medical facility. Additional cabinets for storage, and even open shelving for a place to display items personal to each resident help warm the space.

Separating the Dining Room from other Activity Spaces

For memory care residents, having this helps differentiate what activity they are participating in. Having games and other activities in the same room where individuals eat, can cause confusion for some seniors. Creating a sense of place in different rooms allows the residents to know what they should be expecting when they walk into a space, minimizing confusion. In addition, providing enough spaces for various activities allows residents to identify with their individuality.

One resident I had the pleasure of working with, loves to run. He has been a runner for many years. The community in which he resides has an interior courtyard which allows him the opportunity to continue to enjoy his passion and maintain a healthy lifestyle, while doing so in a safe environment.

Another resident I worked with loves music. During some of our activities, we would listen to music, and at times, she would seem to lose focus on the activity. However, when music was playing, she would know every word to the song, and reminisce about a past time.

Providing opportunities for each person to engage in what they enjoy, makes their new home feel like home.

Adequate Staff Office Space and Storage

In senior living communities, one must also be mindful in designing for the employees. Ensuring that each team member has a location to complete their work successfully is critical. Designs that carefully consider staff members may include additional spaces for their personal belongings or even a place to make private phone calls or have a quiet moment. Areas dedicated specifically for staff help to make team members feel appreciated and valued.

Many activities for memory care residents involve games that include large items such as balloons, beach balls, and hula hoops, which quickly fill a storage space. Adequate office space and storage can lead to a reduced amount of clutter, ensuring that residents get the best care from the team.

Having a Therapy System in Place

For memory care residents, it is important to have a form of therapy in place to manage behaviors and promote therapeutic engagement activities. These types of activities reduce resident stress that is typically caused by disengagement or boredom. The community I volunteer for has a system which includes memory cubbies used for this type of therapy. Each cubby has items or pictures from family members to help calm or soothe the resident who is experiencing stress. I experienced this system being used when a resident became extremely upset. The photograph and kind words presented to her quickly eased her mind and calmed her emotions. When designing a senior living community, it is important to keep these types of things in mind to incorporate the necessary spatial requirements of the therapy that is being used.

When designing for seniors, special attention is given to the specific guidelines and codes for the building type. However, because this type of building is someone’s home, the end user’s needs require adequate attention as well. Volunteering with memory care residents has been a memorable opportunity that has provided many great takeaways. It has helped me to better understand direct needs and desires that are special to seniors while creating personal connections with some new, truly wonderful individuals in my community.