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Designing for a new savvy aging population –the hotel approach

Updated: Sep 29

By Janine Anderson - Associate Hager Design International Inc.


Diverse, integrated, and active amenities are the new norm for senior living residences. Previously, seniors housing has been designed with large lobby seating areas, a single main dining room, and a multi purpose room that transitioned from art room to movie theater. That approach is no longer satisfactory. If a developer wants to attract clients and charge higher fees, they need to appeal to the aging baby boomers who are active in their communities. Hence, we are seeing a shift in people’s expectations of a senior living facility from a generation that regularly dines out, walks to the local café to have coffee with their buddies, attends the movie theater or ballet, and likes to workout regularly. This new generation of seniors who enjoy the café and pub cultures also wants to be more social within these settings and are looking for these social amenities as they shift from their houses to a home. In a well-designed senior’s facility these specialized spaces and features encourage residents to come out of their apartments regularly and be actively engaged with other residents and their physical environment. The fact that a family visit may take place in the public pub area is a big shift in thinking versus the traditional visit in the senior’s suite. These behavioral changes that are for the better need to be considered when programming and designing a senior home of today.

The basic old approach of a lobby, dining room and multi-purpose room that possibly considered lighting levels, fabric types, sound absorption and use of color suitable for seniors are old news. Providing a memory shelf and areas to rest through long corridors are expected and are no longer stand-out selling features. New senior living homes are having to adapt to this perspective shift of a savvier resident who does not want a major lifestyle change. They want an easier lifestyle with all the great features they are used to, in one place. Hence, we are now designing senior’s homes similar to a grand hotel lobby with open concept dining and a standout bar or pub, specific yoga rooms and cinema spaces. A lobby living room space and dining room with a sea of formal seating is no longer acceptable, nor does the old approach stimulate and engage the end user. The new lobby is not a lobby at all, but an active space with a focal feature that encourages social gatherings like a great hotel bar does. Whether its a grand fireplace flanked with water features that spills into the dining room, or a cool café lounge space serving up tasty treats, the successful newly designed senior’s homes are keeping up with the best hotels in the neighborhood.

On a recent project, The Williston in Regina Saskatchewan, we encouraged our client to add in a grand focal staircase with a feature fireplace versus having no staircase. The result was a much more dynamic, open and inviting environment with a visual connection from the active dining area on the first level to the other active pub and salon areas on the second level. Areas are no longer compartmentalized as they often were in older senior living homes. Nowadays, we look to create flow between areas that is reflective of the new generation that likes to be part of the larger social community in which they live. The new approach transports the larger outside community of hangouts – the café, pub, yoga studio and salon into an entire building. The stair also encouraged physical exercise and independence to the seniors physically active.

Within that flow from one space to the other it is also very important create visual diversity. This variation helps to stimulate those who may not be able to leave the property regularly. Visual variety acts as destination markers which stimulates the brain and aids in way finding. We are seeing this approach in both hotel design and senior living design. Each space has a unique identity, not themed, but strong design features that give the space individual personality. For instance, if you have a space that is called the “pub” than embrace that pub like feel and make it distinct from the design language of the lobby living room.

These pub-like spaces also provide an opportunity to create more casual dining spaces with a bit more of a masculine flavor. Not everyone wants to feel like they are having a formal dining experience every night as was so often the past dining experience in senior living homes. These older styles would have one room that was set up like a formal restaurant. The new generation of seniors wants to be able to wear their jeans to dinner and perhaps order a burger and fries instead of a roast beef dinner. These smaller pub like settings encourage the casual attire and also provides a small a la carte style menu that varies from the other main dining room.

Whether part of the lobby or a space of its own, the café is also the new expected amenity which can also be an income generator for the property. Creating a proper fully designed café that offers up a great latte and pastries provides that amenity in a safe and fun way for those who can no longer get out to their favorite cafe. Just because one is moving into a senior home, they no longer have to give up their Americano out at the café. In another recent project, the typical old formal lobby space was replaced with an active café space with mixed seating types for all uses. The space has comfy sofa areas with TV’s, a larger communal table for small groups, a cozy fireplace feature and upright café dining tables all anchored by a coffee bar. These café amenities do come with their challenges in terms of mechanical requirements and code related issues, but whether smaller or a more full-service style, they are a must for your top tiered residences.

As we have seen a shifted in the way our food is prepared over the past 20 years and the celebration of open kitchens in restaurants, so are we seeing this shift in the approach senior living restaurants. The kitchen is now a place to be celebrated and experienced not hidden away. This amenity comes with more design challenges as safety is still key when designing for seniors. In a recent project this one area warranted more conversations than any other. How do we open up the kitchen visually, but still ensure the residences with memory issues or those that wander remain safe. This was achieved by opening as much of the walls as possible, while being able to easily close them off at night. As well, there is no physical boundary between this opening and the dining area. Looking into the kitchen is encouraged.

As one of out client’s project managers put it, “Wow, I’m now looking forward to this stage of my life a little more. In order to stay competitive and appeal to the new aging population, the newest designed senior residences are having to up their game and provide hotel and resort like amenities for this savvier and more social senior.

Janine Anderson is a Sr. Designer and Assoc.ate of Hager Design International Inc. an international interior design firm with senior living and hospitality projects throughout North America. Janine can be reached at info@hagerinc.com


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