How Senior Housing Can Build Healthier, Happier Communities

When it comes to forward-thinking senior housing, Margaret Wylde may be the ultimate authority on how the industry can take a more holistic approach to build healthier places and promote wellness.

Wylde is the founder and CEO of ProMatura Group, LLC, a global research and advisory firm that specializes in consumers 50 and older and their housing services. She also serves on the board of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) and chairs the Senior Housing Council at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit education and research institute that focuses on the use of land to enhance the total environment.

Senior Housing News recently caught up with Wylde to learn about initiatives underway at the Urban Land Institute and what the senior housing industry can do to better impact the environment and improve the lives of residents.

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What is the Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Places Initiative all about? 

Though the Urban Land Institute has been into green initiatives, we weren’t paying attention as an organization to building healthy environments. It’s really how you can help people be healthier in the environment in which they live.

That covers a broad area of things, from getting enough physical activity, getting into the environment, being outside, forging good social connections, good food and drinking water. It’s particularly important for lower income housing where frequently there is not enough good drinking water or fresh food. It’s making sure places are healthy and that the environment doesn’t stand in the way.

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Part of that is using materials in the construction of buildings that are healthier. The industry used to use a lot of some types of wood that would off-gas into the environment. Making sure that buildings breath well, that people have access to fresh, clean air and are using material that are hopefully more sustainable will protect the environment. Just about any way you can think of to make an environment healthier is what Building Health Places is about.

What are some specific projects that relate to creating a healthier space overall?

Relative to our buildings, most of our communities in age-qualified housing are pretty much green buildings, energy efficient building. And, for the most part, a lot of the buildings use sustainable energy programs. I think our properties are pretty healthy in the first place just as far as their impact on the environment. We use less water per apartment unit. Compared to an all-age apartment building, we produce less traffic, less congestion at high-low times on roads. During rush hour, our apartment tenants are not out on the road. If we compare us to an all-age apartment, we have less of a negative impact on the environment.

One of the things I have seen a few of our communities do is edible landscaping. It makes a pretty space, but it can also produce and be a form of activity and something for people to do if they want to go up and garden. In our communities, many of them for a long time have been putting some form of gardening in. It’s just been more of an activity in the past, but now I think it’s turning more to producing fresh vegetables. It gets people out into the environment and involved and creating green in areas where we might not have had it before.

We also have a lot more properties that end up with a lot more pavement and solid surface today than what we used to see. I know many places are learning to use pavers or elements that water soak goes through. You still have relatively dry surface instead of all the water washing over or off, [creating a need for] water retention ponds or dealing with too much water flowing in the wrong direction. There are many more today that are using surfaces that water can actually just seep through, so we don’t have water run-off problems that we’ve had in the past. Just making better use of water is important—using water reclamation from rain predominantly and recycling it, reusing gray water for watering lawns and plants.

What’s the greater role of senior housing in building healthy places?

It will have less impact overall on the environment, that’s No. 1. And No. 2, the people within the community will probably be healthier and happier. It’s about creating a more inviting environment that invites people within the community to go outside and beyond the community. And then the people outside the community to enjoy at least some of the free aspects around the community, which is a healthy environment.

People who are either kept out or kept in can’t have good social interactions with people of all ages. That’s another part of it, creating good social nodes where people can casually interact with other people in an environment that they feel comfortable lingering in. More and more, that can be done.

It does seem like many times our communities—I mean when you’re talking really high density areas—the street front is going to be a relatively narrow area with a door that basically goes into a lobby. But when we have a little more space, a lot of the area can be developed so that there is less of a division between the outside and inside of the community.

Even within communities, I think healthier spaces and healthier designs will enable people to get outside. Even if you only have a small piece of dirt or a rooftop, the design of a community can focus on allowing people to enjoy being out of doors in an environment that is enticing. Give them stable walkways or handrails. It would be more inviting to them. There’s a lot that can be done inside and out to make people feel more comfortable and casual.

What are some health outcomes from building healthy places?

We do know that if people are in an environment that is friendly, where they feel comfortable, where they can get outdoors and do the things they want to do, the data says those people at those places feel more at home and feel happier.

It just depends. More generally, buildings where it’s easier to take the stairs than go around the corner and take elevator are enabling. In retirement communities, we should have well-designed stairs and good handrails, etc. We should have stairs in good locations and in easy-to-use places because just going up a flight or two of stairs every day gives you a little bit more cardio exercise and helps strengthen you leg muscles.

What are some of green trends or initiatives you’re most excited about?

The top ones are putting more green in spaces are creating better outdoor spaces. Those, particularly in age-qualified housing, make a heck of a lot of sense. We need to invest in creating those outdoor environments.

A study that we did for American Seniors Housing Association showed that the properties where people had good outdoor spaces had a higher proportion who felt at home and a higher proportion who were very satisfied. Is one a direct cause of the other? There are probably a lot of other attributes there that also have an influence. But we do see that if people can get out of doors and enjoy the environment—even if it’s a relatively small space—it has a very positive impact.

Having the opportunity during growing season to participate in either growing, eating whatever has been grown, or watching things grow and change with the seasons is a good past time. It’s something to look forward to. The more we have of that in our communities, the better the environment will be.

What should developers be thinking about beyond cost?

Besides outdoor spaces, [developers should think about] creating livable resident spaces for people, where you do have a sense of your own private space. I think in the industry we’ve sort of gone more toward a lot more amenities and minimizing the individual apartment. I don’t think our apartments have to get that much bigger, I just think they have to be very carefully thought out with good use of the amount of natural light. Being able to open windows and have screens, particularly in parts of the country where you can enjoy fresh air from the out of doors, is important. Some places you can’t open windows very well.

Having logical and plentiful storage is important so that things are where they should be and people can store things close to where they are going to use them—and store things where they used to have them in their old home. But, some our spaces are pretty tight so that there’s not really enough convenient places to put things. It’s hard to get used to and comfortable in a space where you’re always looking somewhere else to get something. Having enough space in our apartments, even if it’s a studio, would make them feel more at home.

What more should senior housing providers be doing to create healthier places?

Really trying to understand how customers want to live, and not to assume that customers necessarily want to come and have to adapt to the program of a community.

Ask how can we create spaces that allow the person to really live their lifestyle and use the community and services and opportunities at their discretion. We don’t necessarily force people to do everything, but to a certain extent there’s an implication that if you don’t do it, then you won’t be supporting the community. I don’t think people need forced socialization.

Many people are happy spending a good part of their day doing their own thing in their own home. As long as they know that they have that opportunity to get out and get together with others, that’s enough to keep many, many people happy and not lonely.

I think another thing for a healthy place is to really understand how people want to live, and not assume that everybody has to participate in the everyday activities, like eating three meals in a dining room every day with other people or going to X number of activities. It should revolve more around allowing individuals to plan their own lifestyle.

Written by Amy Baxter

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