5 Trends in Living Spaces for Older Adults Prompted by the Pandemic – AARP

casual dining space in watercrest sarasota in sarasota florida

Courtesy HKS

Casual dining space in Watercrest Sarasota in Sarasota, Florida.

COVID-19 hasn’t just changed the way we socialize and work. It’s also influencing living spaces.

The pandemic has forced architects and planners of retirement communities, long-term care facilities, assisted living and nursing homes to rethink their designs, especially now that residents and their families are expecting safer, more flexible spaces.

As the population ages, those expectations are only going to intensify. By 2030, all baby boomers — that’s about 73 million people — will be older than age 65, according to the United States Census Bureau.

“Unfortunately, the [senior living] industry is really, really good at taking care of people and not as focused on taking care of their buildings,” says Dana Wollschlager, partner and practice leader with Plante Moran Living Forward, a senior living development adviser in Chicago. “COVID has really forced [communities] to prioritize their investments.”

That’s particularly critical given that 42 percent of communities for older adults are more than 25 years old, according to Wollschlager. “They’re saying, ‘Oh my God, we have to do better,’” she says.

Here are five top trends in senior living design brought on or sped up by the pandemic:

1. New investments in technology

The COVID-19 crisis exposed deficiencies in technology infrastructure and connectivity, which left some residents of senior living communities or nursing homes isolated from the outside world during the height of the pandemic. Many were unable to see friends and family — even on screens — which exacerbated feelings of loneliness and isolation for long-term care residents. Those feelings have lingered even as some facilities allowed more interaction.

Studies have found that isolation and loneliness are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, of stroke, and of death among heart failure patients.

“Technology and infrastructure is key,” says Wollschlager. “Our industry has kicked that can down the road for a long time because it’s expensive, it’s not easy, and technology is constantly changing.”

To make sure residents have quick and uninterrupted access to Zoom calls, telehealth visits and other online services, communities are increasing bandwidth and eliminating dead spots.

This improved technological infrastructure has helped communities keep residents active and engaged, even during quarantine.

Retirement community John Knox Village in Pompano Beach, Florida, for example, has produced in-house videos with cooking tips from its executive chef, as well as fitness programs and other “life-enriching” content broadcast on the property’s Community TV Channel, according to chief marketing and innovation officer Monica McAfee.

Hands-free technologies — such as touchless entrances — are on the rise as well. Voice technologies, meanwhile, let residents submit maintenance requests, keep track of daily activities, set medication reminders, receive COVID-19 safety briefings and more.

people sitting together in living space at legacy midtown park dallas

Courtesy HKS

Living space at Legacy Midtown Park in Dallas.

2. Reimagined living spaces

“The biggest thing COVID has shown is that small living is better, both from a safety standpoint and from a social standpoint,” says San Francisco-based architect and gerontologist Alexis Denton, associate principal with the global firm Perkins Eastman.

To make settings feel less institutional and more like home, designs are moving toward small “neighborhoods” of residents, in which 10 or 12 suites are clustered together to limit the number of staff and residents, as well as airflow, in shared spaces. Independent and assisted living communities may focus on smaller scale, decentralized common spaces instead of large common spaces shared by an entire building.​

This trend began several years ago with skilled nursing facilities and is now moving into assisted and independent living spaces given that it allows for better infection control and an increased feeling of community.

The New Jersey-based Green House Project specializes in this trend. The nonprofit organization creates living environments that are an alternative to traditional nursing home care facilities, designing them differently in terms of size, interior design, organizational structure, staffing patterns and other features — all to look and feel like a “real” home.

The pandemic has also changed the way architects and designers are approaching meal spaces. To go along with the uptick in “grab-and-go” meals, Wollschlager says designers are creating nooks within smaller living spaces to offer space for a bite to eat — something that wasn’t thought of before COVID, given group seating in community dining rooms.

“For months residents had to eat in their own room, so if we have to go back to that,” she says, “they’ll have someplace to eat.”

At the same time, multipurpose spaces are moving from the center or back of a complex to the front, so there’s more room for subdivided visitation spaces, and those can be insulated from other areas.

“Visitors don’t have to go as far into the community and therefore expose someone or be exposed themselves,” says Grant Warner, a principal at HKS, an international architecture and design firm based in Dallas.

Warner, a member of the firm’s senior living practice, adds that for nursing homes, new designs more closely replicate a typical residence: “We wouldn’t invite someone to come right into our bedroom. We would invite them into our living room or den.”

Other new multipurpose-space uses: donning and disposing of personal protective equipment, testing and evaluating visitors, providing temporary workforce housing, and hosting public outreach activities.

people dining indoors at legacy midtown park dallas

Courtesy HKS

Dining and outdoor space in Legacy Midtown Park in Dallas.

3. Improving air quality

Since COVID-19 is primarily an airborne disease, families have become much more savvy with questions about mechanical systems that control air filtration and purification. Air pollution also can aggravate asthma, lung disease, and other chronic health conditions among older adults, making them at high risk if they contract the virus.

The good news, says Warner, is that senior communities are paying more attention to air quality. In many cases electrostatic filters, which attract virus particles to destroy them, are being retrofitted to existing systems when budgets don’t allow for a system overhaul.

4. Designs for wellness

Living spaces and how they function directly affect the health of older adults. A 2021 study by research firm Mathematica found that during the first part of the pandemic, nursing home residents were much more likely to experience depression, substantial weight loss, incontinence and cognitive decline — even if they hadn’t contracted the virus.

“When you don’t have that direct social interaction, there’s a direct effect on your health,” says Denton. “From a design standpoint, this is about focusing on smaller-scale levels of interaction so people can safely interact during a pandemic.”

In addition to prioritizing soothing color palettes, architects and designers are incorporating more lighting and natural materials to boost both mental and physical health — a relationship backed by research.

living space at the vista at c c young senior living dallas

Courtesy HKS

Living space at The Vista at CC Young Senior Living in Dallas.

5. More indoor/outdoor spaces

Facilities are creating outdoor areas that allow for distanced socializing and activities, and often include heat lamps and other weather-mitigating amenities for four-season comfort.

“Now they’re treated more like outdoor rooms than outdoor spaces,” says Denton.

To bring more daylight indoors, balconies are being considered less of a liability for assisted living apartments, since residents can use them regularly — even during a lockdown — to “spend more time outdoors, visit with families and visit with each other,” Warner says.

New designs and a focus on wellness, limiting spread of disease and redesigning with COVID-19 in mind mean living spaces for older adults— at least in some places — are slowly transforming. “What we have today is better than what we had 20 years ago,” Wollschlager says, “and it’s going to be better 10 years from now.”