Senior Living Design Trends—Visions for the Future

Aug 31, 2023 | Industry Trends

by Melissa Pritchard, Managing Principal, SFCS Architects

Melissa Pritchard is a managing principal at SFCS Architects in Roanoke, Virginia. She has more than 26 years of experience working with clients nationwide to optimize environments for seniors.

As a field, senior living has tended to be cautious in jumping aboard larger societal trends. At times, it has felt to me like the field has focused more on limitations—i.e., what we think we can’t do—than on possibilities for what we can do. While limitations certainly exist, so do infinite possibilities. In today’s increasingly complex business environment, the ability to embrace change and evolve has become imperative. At SFCS, we believe these macro design trends deserve focus.

Highly Curated Common Spaces

Community common spaces that emphasize function and are well-defined and well-designed are a growing trend. It is important to establish a theme and concept for each space, and then to carry the theme and concept all the way through, from the name of the space to its design, so that every aspect of the space lives up to the intent for what happens there and the value it brings to the community.

This trend applies not just to the primary common spaces, like dining venues and lobbies, but also to those in-between spaces in every community such as corridors and pass-throughs that can be reimagined as galleries or gathering spaces. Defining spaces gives them life.

Independent Living Innovations

The next generation of cottage neighborhood designs incorporates social engineering. While building residences around a common green and tucking parking behind them provides for shared green spaces, it doesn’t provide the personal outdoor space that is increasingly prized and expected by residents. What is usually ‘leftover’ space between cottages is now being reimagined as truly private, meaningful outdoor living space for each home.

Traditional apartment buildings offer the highest density and lowest-cost residences. However, the demand for those residences is decreasing. Even though they are typically the most expensive residences in a community, single-family homes often have a wait list, while apartments sit vacant.

Villas—hybrid buildings that blend the space and multi-side exposures of a cottage with some of the increased density benefits of apartments—are becoming more popular. However, construction cost increases have made them more expensive to develop. Innovation will be needed to create more affordable nontraditional residences, either by working to decrease the construction and maintenance costs or creating new options.

Dynamic Dining Destinations

Senior living has long recognized the need to offer dining programs that not only meet residents’ nutritional needs but also provide an enjoyable social experience in a sophisticated and memorable environment. That said, an attractive dining room and a casual café are no longer enough. Unique restaurant styles that you’d expect to see in an urban downtown are setting expectations for our dining venues. Now, defining features like an open kitchen, display cooking or a copper pizza oven not only add visual appeal to the venue, but also create a unique centerpiece for dining programs to be built around. The dining concept needs to carry through not just the space but also be reflected in the menu, artwork and accessories. At the same time, spaces need to provide flexibility for events and truly engage residents in the dining experience.

Shifting Dynamics of Dependent Care

Senior living is experiencing a shift away from skilled nursing-style environments toward less institutional spaces. The pandemic has played a role in this shift, as it has become more difficult to staff skilled nursing.

Simultaneously, communities are taking on higher acuity in assisted living, answering a demand that reflects families’ desire to have their loved ones live in a more amenity-rich, lifestyle-focused environment.

New spaces are being designed with a focus on the flexibility to serve any level of care, from assisted living to skilled nursing. Small house design incorporating connected “households” is becoming increasingly popular.

Embracing Outdoor Opportunities

Outdoor spaces that create enjoyable, habitable environments extending the life of the community beyond four walls are a trend for which momentum was accelerated by COVID.

Community gardens, walking paths, courtyards, outdoor kitchens and fire features not only provide residents with fresh air and sunlight but also serve as venues for socialization and recreation.

Communities are recognizing the need to create cohesive spaces that offer the same sophistication of amenities and features across all levels of care. Incorporating amenities like bocce courts and outdoor exercise equipment, which promote holistic wellness and physical connection, is as important in assisted living and skilled nursing as it is in independent living.

Intentional Intergenerational Inclusion

There has been much talk but little meaningful action around age desegregation in senior living. Most older adults don’t want an entirely age-segregated life. By creating environments that are still customized for older adults but are also inclusive of a diversity of ages, we can create more dynamic communities.

True intergenerational inclusion won’t be limited to a single program or initiative but will be integrated into every aspect of a community. Many communities have taken incremental steps, such as offering on-site childcare, sharing community common spaces, establishing in-residence programs for university students and developing relationships with local schools.

By approaching intergenerational connections holistically, senior living communities can enhance the overall quality of life for their residents and create more meaningful, fulfilling experiences for people of all ages.

Meeting the Mission for Middle America

Although senior living organizations serve the lowest and highest ends of the financial spectrum well, estimates indicate that as much as 75% of the market is unserved or underserved.

Currently, only a handful of senior living companies is profitably serving the middle market. The solution, not surprisingly, is innovation. Using kit-of-parts architecture can bring down construction costs, organizing the individual parts and materials into assemblies of standard, easy-to-manufacture components. Developing creative programming and dining solutions can reduce operating expenses. Exploring new entrance fee/monthly fee models will address revenue.

Begin Planning Beyond Boomers

We have all been so focused on preparing for the boomers that little thought has been given to “Who comes next?” Even today, Gen X and Gen Y are helping their parents make decisions, and these adult children have a significant influence on their parents’ purchasing choices.

These upcoming generations also have very different preferences and expectations, including an interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. Communities that incorporate meaningful ESG goals and commitments into their organizations and offer residents opportunities to make an impact on the broader community and society will have a greater appeal for current and future residents as well as maximizing their positive footprint.

Infinite Possibilities and Untapped Potential for the Future

The world population is aging, and advances in technology and medical care are allowing older adults to live longer healthier lives. At the same time, competition is increasing, the cost of construction and labor is rising, and customer preferences are changing.

Analyzing senior living trends is an essential element in strategic planning. Senior living operators need to anticipate changes in the market, identify new opportunities for growth and innovation, and adjust their strategies to ensure they remain competitive and relevant in a constantly evolving field.

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