Senior Living Design Still Falls Short of Giving People What They Want

Senior housing will likely undergo a sea change in the coming years—including a greater responsiveness to what residents want and need.

That’s according to Thomas Levi, president of design firm Levi Wong Design Associates (LWDA); and Steve Levin, senior vice president of real estate at Omega Healthcare Investors, Inc. (NYSE: OHI). Levi and Levin are experts in their field, both with more than 40 years of industry experience. They’re also the newest judges for the 2018 Senior Housing Architecture & Design Awards, which opened for submissions on June 11.

The Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards recognize cutting-edge design, excellence and innovation in senior living. Each year, the competition’s panel of judges reviews submissions from more than 80 organizations, with entries ranging from assisted living and standalone memory care communities to age-restricted or international projects.

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Senior Housing News caught up with Levi and Levin to talk about current design trends for the senior living industry, and what might be on the horizon for the product type:

SHN: What are some of the biggest design trends in senior housing right now?

Levi:  Compared to a lot of other industries we work with, there’s a major evolution of open exchange of knowledge between all of the providers, which I think is excellent. Whether it’s on the financial side, the design side, or operations, everybody is trying to work toward a better method of providing a better quality of life for residents. That’s a trend I like, and I see it getting better in each year.

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From a design standpoint, I do see a lot of lifestyle choices really starting to evolve on the housing and living side. There are many different lifestyle choices that providers are offering at this point. There’s much more change in this area than there is on the care side, especially in active adult and independent living.

There’s still a lot of cosmetic upgrades with some improved social areas, mainly in some of the renovations of buildings. But even new buildings coming out are sort of a hybrid between residential models, institutional and medical models. This has been going on for a number of years, and this is increasing more and more as everybody sees what other providers are building. Hopefully this stops as some point. New residents entering in the future will demand the living and residential models.

On the care side, there’s still a lot of legacy medical or institutional models out there, and people are trying to upgrade them. But they only have enough money to do it cosmetically. And while there are some providers migrating toward the small-house model, some have turned away from it because they couldn’t quite figure out how to financially support it.

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Levin: We’re seeing many different options of dining and amenities. Some of our operators are doing projects in these urban infill areas where they’re introducing a restauranteur or bringing a local coffee shop into the community. Whether it’s dining, coffee, even spas, we see people bringing in vendors and retail establishments into the facility. Hospitality and residential design will be a main driver of trends in senior living design.

The problem of the industry is the overall nomenclature used in it. You’re even seeing operators now getting away from the word “senior.” One of our operators has begun to implement the phrase “modern living.” So, it’s a major push away from the institutional. Landscaping, outdoor spaces and resort style living options will [also] play a role in senior living communities.

What is one thing you’re tired of seeing in senior housing design, and why?

Levi: This conversation comes up a lot at conferences. I’m actually not tired of any of them, quite frankly. I do think, however, there’s not a true understanding of what the residents really need or want. I am tired of seeing “fake and make-believe” solutions rather than maintaining the normal and providing real, relevant and affirming surroundings that support purposeful living.

I think people believe that, because something works in one place, you can easily change the style for another location. But It’s not about style, it’s about what people want. It’s the part of the industry that hasn’t evolved as deep as it should at this point. It’s the user preferences that will solve your problems in the future.

Levin: It’s just the whole nomenclature. The names have to change. Although residents are at the end of their life, you have to get away from saying this is an end-of-the-life housing option.

When you read about all of the new developments, so often the components of the buildings remain the same, such the bistro, the salon, the main street. But there’s got to be a culture change. It’s time to bring new life into the buildings with a whole new aspect of naming spaces and programming.

So, as an example, instead of the bistro, one of our operators named the space “Fin’s Pub” after the project superintendent, who was local to the area. The buildings have to be market-appropriate, so in another case, instead of the bistro, it could be the coffee and donut shop. Something residents can relate to when they were able to perform activities of daily living without assistance.

How do you expect senior housing design to change in the next few years?

Levi: I see a trend more and more toward flexible community design. These buildings just can’t be designed for one single use only. You’ll see more and more where you can’t tell assisted living units from independent living units, for example. I think they’re going to have to build much more flexible buildings, so that if the market shifts, or if you miss the market, you can move your living models within the building.

Lifestyle choices are also mushrooming right now, and there’s going to be more of those in the future. People are going to look for reasons to go into senior housing. They’re bringing their personal lifestyle into this building, and they’re going to be looking for that.

Whatever level you’re working at developing, there will be more vibrant lifestyles for everybody. And they’re going to be driven, again, by a lifestyle, an affinity, a location, and affordability.

Levin: You’re going to see a lot of changes in designing and the floor plans. One of the major components for senior living is the socialization that occurs within the buildings. I’m on the road all the time, and I always go in these buildings where the occupancy is full, but you never see anybody. They’re in their rooms, because the only activity thats occurring is, maybe once or twice a week, there’s a musician or a bingo game. Amenity spaces need to be designed to be multi-functional and feel welcoming and comfortable for the residents. Large formal spaces will be repurposed for smaller open areas to promote activity. Flexibility will be a key ingredient to a successful design.

So, they really have to introduce more programming for residents, especially where they’re inviting and encouraging people from the outside to come in so that it’s more of a living environment.

Technology and environmental concerns will play a significant role in future designs. The population is becoming more sophisticated. Cyber awareness and automation of building systems will be more prevalent along with environmentally friendly and sustainable buildings.

Levi: I think if the providers don’t supply to people something of interest, you’ll see the residents take it on their own and do it through crowdsourcing and active talking between each other. Something like, ‘who wants to get together tonight, who wants to have a party on the deck?’

Technology will also change in the future. Circadian lighting, for instance, is here now, and will change more and more in the next two to three years. Other trends like augmented reality and artificial intelligence, those are going to evolve more and more and increasingly blend with what’s going on in senior living.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

For more senior housing trends, be sure to follow the Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards website. The submission period for this year’s awards opened on Tuesday, June 11. 

Written by Tim Regan

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