Our colleagues at Moseley Architects recently shared with us an insightful panel discussion about the evolution of senior living designs, including where their team thinks the sector is headed in terms of technology, social elements, living spaces, outside influences and more. Here is what they shared with us.
From sprawling, single-story facilities on the outskirts of townships to vibrant high-rises that make aging populations a vital part of urban communities, senior living has evolved over the years, now representing one of the most fulfilling sectors of the architectural design industry.
At Moseley Architects, we have enjoyed not only watching this sector evolve, but also being an active proponent in its evolution. Partnering with leading communities, our firm has designed more than 450 facilities over the years—from active, independent and assisted living to memory care across urban, suburban and resort-style settings.
Our panel featured the following Moseley Architects team members:
- Dora Kay, Senior Living Sector Lead and panel moderator
- Steve Ruiz, Vice President and former Senior Living Sector Lead
- Mike Stumpfoll, Vice President and CCRC design team member
- Sally Plunkett, Architectural Designer
Kay: I thought we might start by asking you to share some of your perspectives for the early days.
Ruiz: I designed my first senior living project in 1989. A lot has changed, as from the onset we saw a lot of room for growth and improvements. With my very first project, I realized that there was a need for more outcome-driven design—using data and information to inform our work. But at that time, very little information was available. For example, I recall that one of the commentators on ADA’s final draft noted that existing regulations were based on wounded veterans with good upper body strength. That just didn’t apply to our residents. So, there’s been a continuous process since, pursuing new knowledge and research to expand our understanding of how the elderly respond to their natural and built surroundings.
Kay: Have any personal experiences changed the way each of you looks at design?
Stumpfoll: Yes, both in terms of expected quality and accessibility, I would say. In the late 1980s, my grandmother moved into war widow housing in downtown Munich. She was a city person, walking to get groceries nearly every day and riding the tram and U-bahn all over, including to her garden plot. I was an architecture student at the time and I remember how simple her apartment was. The unit was small, with a kitchenette that included an auto shut-off range. The bathroom was large enough to allow room for assistance or a wheelchair. Every unit included a concrete balcony surrounded by a wall …The ubiquitous tilt-turn patio door and the solid wood panel doors that swing shut with a click; the stained wood trim, solid wood cabinetry and tile flooring—all were expected minimums.
Ruiz: And those expectations now extend beyond just occupants. About 10 years ago, my mother moved into one of our assisted living projects, where she lived for more than five years, transitioning to memory care and passing away in her unit shortly after. It was in the last moments of her life that I truly realized the compassion and importance of caregivers; who you also think about and feel inspired to design for. I have since tried to make the places for staff as pleasant and stately as possible.
Kay: That’s a great point and clearly they deserve our best efforts. Speaking of setting—Michael, just as your grandmother was able to get out and integrate with her urban surroundings, I know that’s become an increasingly important part of our designs, especially as we do more infill projects in urban settings. Steve, I’m wondering if you could speak to how social aspects have become an important component?
Ruiz: Reviewing the regulations for nursing homes is when I realized that we were breaking away from a medical model and focusing on a social model … Currently senior living has morphed into a hospitality model of social interaction and boutique style homes catering to different interests.
Kay: Do you envision these social activities as you design?
Stumpfoll: Absolutely. Living in retirement is enhanced by the interaction of friends. The residents have floor parties, community art events and many ways that they meet and make new connections. We create the built environment that can support those interactions. Sometimes it’s making a space that sizzles—that makes a prospective resident or his or her daughter stop and say, “Wow!” Other times it’s about a space that steps back, so to speak, and lets the activity stand out. An active space is more appealing than an inactive but beautiful dining room.
Kay: The last area I would like to touch on includes technology. How do you see this playing into your own retirement years, and is there an innovation you expect to happen by that time?
Ruiz: I have always embraced new technology since the early days of the technological revolution … improvements to artificial intelligence and diagnostic home robots is the next wave I look forward to, as that will allow us to become more independent and productive.
Stumpfoll: Good, seamless technology will be a given in my future. Looking back to when we thought email might be useful for work [laughs] … some technologies ended up in the recycling pile, but the devices and technologies that were intuitive and easy to use have remained. I like the way that everything just works on my iPhone. I track steps with it; it contains health records; and it knows a lot about me. I think that type of technology will be expected by my generation to provide more features and abilities as we grow older.
Plunkett: I agree. Handheld technology is a senior’s connection to anyone and anything outside of their immediate community, all at the convenience of their fingertips. Whether they play games on apps, call their families via video chat or scroll through photos—they are staying connected. It also supports their ability to stay engaged in current events … I also hope to see more accessible and affordable automated appliances that help protect seniors’ health and safety.
Kay: Well, we have the pleasure of not only dreaming of these advancements but also seeing them in Moseley Architects’ designs. As a field, I think it goes without saying that we will continue to show sensitivity to needs, and to evolve and grow—listening to the populations we serve. I, for one, continue to be amazed with what is possible and the designs that can be achieved. And I have no doubt that we’re just getting started.