Taking Senior Living Design from Old Folks’ Home to HGTV

The senior living industry seems to be in a constant state of combating stereotypes.

There’s no question that senior housing has advanced in leaps and bounds from the days of more institutional settings, and that people are becoming more aware of these changes. Even so, there are still certain negative connotations that go along with the phrase “senior housing.”

When studioSIX5 President Dean Maddalena began working in senior living design two decades ago, even he had his own ideas of what seniors housing entailed. Since then, he’s worked to present a new portrayal of senior living through design.


Senior Housing News sat down with Maddalena to discuss how his perception of senior living has changed, how he wants to reflect that shift in the communities he designs and why addressing the middle market is critical to senior living’s future.

Senior Housing News: What was your first impression when you were introduced to seniors housing?

DM: Like most people still do, I had a preconceived notion of what it is, or what it was. That’s everything you saw from movies—a white, sterile environment with a bunch of older people that are quiet. A lot of people will say senior living is God’s waiting room.


I learned quickly that was not the case. It had actually been around for a while, and it just depends on the part of the country that you’re from. If you’re from California, where senior living or continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) kind of started, and if you go to the East Coast, especially Pennsylvania where the Quakers were actually the first to start CCRCs, it’s a way of life, senior living is a logical lifestyle that you move into later on in life.

Now that there’s more people needing to live in it, there’s really a big educational marketing side for a lot of our clients. They have to educate the public of what senior living is, what it’s about. It’s a wonderful lifestyle that caters to seniors, and it’s an environment that allows them to age with dignity. We’re cognizant of the aging eye, we’re cognizant of more frail bodies, and we have to create an environment that supports that.

Most importantly, it also has to engage their families. It has to be a great living experience for the residents, but it also has to be a great place to visit for the whole family. The baby boomer son and daughter, and their kids and grandkids.

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SHN: How have you seen senior living design over the course of your career?

DM: Where before security was the No.1 issue for seniors to move into a community, now the top factors are your living unit, your food service and your wellness programs. Before, where we would have a single dining room, now we have multiple dining venues with display kitchens, interactions with the chefs and restaurant-quality and styled environments where the family wants to come and eat, as well. We have wellness programs and environments that rival any professional spa. It’s not just spa in terms of massages and facials, but also fitness for the mind, body and soul.

Another key factor that is really important is before, because security was so important, senior communities were stuck behind walls and forgotten, or out in suburbia and not engaged with the community. Now, it’s the exact opposite. The [residents] want to engage the surrounding communities and have an interaction. We’re seeing [senior housing] communities open up their common spaces or ballrooms for outside [groups] to come in and use.

We’re working on a community that’s in a planned development where it’s multifamily, and they’re actually coming to pay to eat at the restaurant in the community.

SHN: What’s your perspective on the future of senior living design?

DM: You can never read the future. A couple of the really big issues, though: the senior communities today are really only serving about 5% of the senior population. So there’s a really concerted effort on how we will service the middle income and low income seniors, and how to engage them. Is it possible for congregate living that’s affordable? Or will it be in a home health type of situation? That’s only going to grow, on that side.

In senior living as a whole, I think you’re going to see more urban infill. Seniors are going to want to move to places where there’s more activity, where they can engage the arts and what the community as a whole has to offer. I’ve seen a lot of infill projects, that’s the direction we see. With that, you don’t even need a car. You can walk and have deliveries for your necessities.

We’re building all of our communities to be very flexible and be able to grow with whatever the needs of seniors are. Before, they used to be very regimented. You have one room strictly for cards, and another room strictly for a library. Now, we see the spaces are open and flowing. They don’t really have designated uses. They’re flexible to provide for the daily needs of the residents and staff.

SHN: Why is middle income senior housing so important moving forward, and how do you design to make that affordable?

DM: It’s really down to the financials—land costs, construction costs, and when you get into acute care, there’s all the health regulations that drive costs up, especially with staffing. The economics of it, as we see it now, don’t work. Our clients and other folks are looking at how to service that income level. The baby boomers are still 10, 15 years away, but as they come online, there will be a lot of people who don’t have the dollars to be able to move into these beautiful communities we’re designing right now. It’s a socioeconomic factor that we as a society have to deal with.

If they can’t move into these type of communities, will there be economic support for people to move in? Will there be a home health network to reach out to people in their existing homes? Will there be social groups to help with socialization of seniors? To live a long and happy life, you have to be engaged and interact with other people as a support network, as opposed to being ostracized in your house by yourself.

We always try and create timeless environments, so that you don’t get tired of it. We’ve looked to multifamily and hospitality a lot, in terms of the spaces, programming and offerings. In terms of the design itself, it has to be timeless, and it has to speak to the vernacular of where they are. So we don’t design something in Amarillo, Texas, that we would design in New York City. The residents in Amarillo would expect something different than seniors in New York. We really look to what the comfort level is in that specific area, and we design to that.

We have to set that community apart from others. The decision [for a potential resident] is made within the first 10 seconds that you walk into a space. What is it in that space that we have to design to give you that effect? Not only that, but we’re designing to the 56-year-old first-born daughter who is helping her parents decide where to move. You’re not only wowing the potential 80-year-old resident, but you’re also wowing the 56-year-old daughter.

Everybody watches HGTV now, so they get a lot of influence from that. That’s one of the biggest things our resident communities will say—have you seen Flip or Flop? Did you see that episode last night where they used a beautiful blue on that? We want something like that. Before that, it was Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel catalogues. They’d bring the pictures of a room and say, ‘We want it to look kind of like this.’

Good design isn’t dependent on the money. It isn’t so much the design that will make affordable housing—it’s everything behind the design. The base expense for a senior living community is the staffing. If we know what the budget has to be, we design to the budget. If we’re good designers, we can create that wow factor with any budget that we’re given.

SHN: How can the industry continue to reverse old ideas about senior living design?

DM: A lot of it is in social media. You’re starting to see commercials for senior living. To me, that’s a good thing, because it’s reaching the outlying public and teaching them there is such a thing as senior living. People still have a preconceived notion, especially seniors, that a senior living community is a nasty old folks home with white polished floors and white walls and lonely people in wheelchairs. That’s just not the case anymore.

I think you’ll see it in movies and other elements, that when you start seeing these really grand, beautiful senior spaces, it’ll take that preconceived notion away. The more that people see these communities for the first time, because they have to, because their parents need to move in, then that 56-year-old baby boomer has a completely different notion, so when they reach an age to make a decision, they know this is actually a really nice environment and maybe I want to move in here sooner rather than later.

You’re marketing right now to a large population that might not need the services for another 20 years, but those go by pretty quickly. A goal of the industry is to get people to move into their communities sooner, so if a 56-year-old first-born daughter enters this community and says gee, I want to live here, this is really beautiful, then maybe she will move in when she’s in her 70s rather than her 80s. And she’ll start saving for it, too.

Interview by Kourtney Liepelt

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