Senior Living Architects: Expect Boomers to Reject “One-Size-Fits-All” Model

For years, retirement communities have largely operated on a one-size-fits-all model providing hospitality and healthcare services to a wide spectrum of residents, but the boomers are expected to usher in a new era that will impact senior living design and service offerings. 

“One of the advantages we see with the latest demographic trends is, there are many new alternative niche markets [that exist]. In the past, there was more of an attitude of “one-size-fits-all,” says Leslie Moldow, a principal at Perkins Eastman, an international architecture and design firm which services ranging from interior design, planning, landscape architecture, and project management. 

The Greatest Generation and its predecessors have traditionally been willing to adapt to their surroundings. Future generations aren’t expected to be so compliant, and paying attention to generational shifts in preferences is becoming increasingly important. 

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“If you don’t fine-tune to the niche market, you’ll be missing the market,” says Moldow. “The boomers and the silent generation are more geared to, ‘I’m me, I’m unique, I have my own philosophy, etc., so I want a community really tailored to me.'”

Both the market demands the idea of creating a niche, she says, and the “vast numbers” of older adults entering the market. 

That doesn’t mean the next generation of communities for older adults will have radically different designs, and existing communities won’t necessarily need comprehensive overhauls, either. Developers could even build less, if providers opt to team up with local amenities. 
“I don’t think the developer or operator has to provide all of the customization [for all different types of people],” Moldow says. “People might get more mileage by creating an affiliation with another organization, or a partnership that provides unique options.”
Senior living providers could offer different service or amenity packages to residents depending on their interests, she says. There could be a niche for foodies, or a travel package for adventurers. “You’re leveraging partnerships or affiliations in a new way way, and a lot of it is very service-oriented.” 
Niches may end up being geographic rather than demographic in nature, says David Dillard, president of Texas-based D2 Architects. 

D2 is currently designing a senior living project in San Antonio for a client, and Dillard says it will look very different than what might be designed for Dallas.

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“What San Antonio 85-year-olds want, Dallas or Austin doesn’t always want,” he says. “We do work from California to Virginia, and we have to become one with that local culture.” 

San Antonio is “more of a blue jeans community” that’s a lot less formal than Dallas, a city whose inhabitants trend more toward elegance and sophistication, according to Dillard. 

Cultural influences could also impact design, he says, while an area’s local agenda, such as sustainability or “green” design, could be a factor.
“[Those factors] make for a different looking product in architecture, even if it’s exactly the same program, the same number of units, same age of residents, etc.,” Dillard says. 
While several retirement communities catering to veterans and retired military personnel boast waiting lists, not all niche communities have success stories. 
Despite growing demand for LGBT-friendly (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) senior housing, a Florida retirement community catering to this demographic filed for bankruptcy in 2011, while three more planned communities in Boston, Texas, and Arizona never opened, according to a New York Times piece
Ultimately, the idea of affinity communities will be aided by the sheer number of older adults who will be considered eligible for senior living. Even the smallest percentage of the 78 million boomers who share a common interest could be enough to warrant their own niche community, says Moldow.
“You’re going to be able to do a project that may be for 80 people, that will be unique [to their interests]. It’s not like you need to get everybody in the world into your community,” she says. “You will be able to tailor it to a certain philosophy or focus on how people want to spend their leisure time, whether it’s an ethnic or religious theme; LGBT-friendly; etc.”
To attract newer generations, she says, a new paradigm might be necessary. 
“It’s not a matter of marketing to someone younger, it’s more creating new models of housing,” Moldow says. “Not everyone may think that’s their mission, but if they do want to, there is a market that we’re not addressing.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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