‘Exact Opposite Now’: How Senior Living Design Has Changed Over 20 Years

Pictured above: Dean Maddalena, president of studioSIX5

America’s aging demographic is ushering in a new style of senior housing community—one that looks remarkably different from those that gained popularity 20 years ago. In fact, in some key respects the industry has done done a 180-degree about-face, and what once was “taboo” now is in demand.

Senior Housing News checked in with some industry experts to learn how the architecture and design of senior housing communities have changed over the past couple of decades, and how they’ll continue to change beyond 2020. Here’s what they had to say, including how the industry has adapted to new consumer demands and is moving toward a more global perspective.


The 20-year difference

Twenty years ago, senior housing developers were busy creating the continuing care retirement community (CCRC) model—and they were thinking large instead of small, according to Joe Hassel, a principal at architecture firm Perkins Eastman.

“[The CCRCs of 20 years ago] were much larger communities, with 300 or more units or apartments, and they were sprawling,” Hassel told SHN.


Due to their size, these communities—and other senior housing communities—were not often located in urban areas. In fact, building in an urban area was almost taboo.

“Before, everyone thought you built a retirement community out in suburbia, and you wrap a fence around it, and it’s kind of like a segregated island that you have to go out of your way to try to visit,” Dean Maddalena, president of Austin, Texas-based senior living interior design firm studioSIX5, told SHN. “It’s the exact opposite now.”

Today, developers are more interested in urban, in-fill senior housing projects that are more innovative than formulaic.

It’s not only in the size and location of developments that senior housing has done an about-face, it’s also turned inside-out on its approach to hospitality.

Additionally, current developers have a “drive to be different” and a genuine desire to please residents, Perkins Eastman Principal Jerry Walleck told SHN.

“It used to be ’this is what we’re providing for you,’” Walleck explained. “Nowadays, it’s ‘this is what you’re going to provide for me.’”

This is due, in part, to the influence of the hospitality sector on the senior housing industry, Maddalena believes. In hotels, for instance, guests can eat what they want to eat, where they want to eat. New hotels also tend to be more modernly decorated—and senior housing is following suit.

“You’re seeing a lot more acceptance of contemporary and modern interiors, and global influences, [in senior housing],” Maddalena said.

Looking ahead to 2025

New senior housing communities certainly look different today than they did 20 years ago—and they’re bound to look even more different by 2025.

By then, developers will likely gravitate toward building “very flexible, open spaces,” Maddalena said.

“Because of technology, and everything changing so fast, you can’t build static environments. You have to build environments that can adapt quickly,” he explained.

That trend likely won’t carry over into dining spaces, however. Hassel, for instance, does not see huge dining rooms coming back into style in senior living. Perkins Eastman has renovated plenty of large dining rooms into smaller ones, and the larger rooms will likely remain unappealing in years to come, at least to Hassel.

“You could actually in that dining venue see the curvature of the earth, it was so large,” Hassel said of the old size of dining space.

Senior housing developers—a group that will likely include a newer, younger crowd in 2025—are also bound to borrow from what they’re seeing being done overseas.

“In London, senior housing developers aren’t looking to be everything for everybody,” Hassel said. “I think that we’re going to see that more often.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

Photo of Dean Maddalena, courtesy of studioSIX5

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