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February 10, 2019
by Shayla Concannon

Balancing Senior Living Style And Safety

There are roughly 65 million baby boomers in the US currently, many of which are looking to move for a myriad of reasons. Downsizing, moving closer to family, moving to a warmer climate, moving to a one level home, the list goes on. No matter the reason, safety is always a main priority.  We hope you will find the following resource helpful!


Balancing Senior Living Style And Safety 

Source: EFA

When people make the decision to move into a senior living community, it’s usually because something has changed in their lives–they’re ready to downsize, they want to live closer to family or friends, a spouse has died, or the home they live in no longer supports their physical abilities.

So like any homebuyer, prospective residents often judge a location by how it looks and whether it appeals to them aesthetically and not necessarily on how it will support them in years to come. “People feel better about a place that is attractive and well cared for,” says Jeffrey J. Bogart, senior interior designer and principal at Eppstein Uhen Architects (Milwaukee). And how people respond to environments and the expectations they have for them have shifted drastically in the past five to 10 years, thanks to the advent of HGTV and countless interior design websites and apps. Baby boomers are more sophisticated and educated about design and know what they want for themselves or for their aging parents.

While the look and feel of a space and how it’s received by prospective residents will likely be the ultimate selling point, designers and owners/operators understand that the long-term functionality of a senior living community relies on its underlying safety elements. As residents age, it’s critical that shuffling feet, waning vision, and diminishing strength be answered by products specified for senior living.

To that end, balancing style and safety is an essential design strategy for today’s senior living communities, from independent living to memory care. “Everyone enjoys good design,” says LuAnn Thoma-Holec, principal at Thoma-Holec Design (Mesa, Ariz.). “It can change the quality of life for residents no matter which level of care they are in.”
Several new design approaches and product offerings on the market are helping communities achieve environments that are safe, clean, invigorating, and conducive to purposeful activities, and offer choices that are life-enhancing for residents.

Fall prevention strategies
Falls are one of the biggest safety concerns for older residents living in any type of community. “Most falls happen in the bathroom or between the bed and the bathroom,” says Laura Busalacchi, senior director of interiors at Brookdale Senior Living Inc. in Milwaukee, which owns and operates more than 1,000 senior living and senior care facilities in the U.S. As awareness of the issue has grown, Busalacchi says manufacturers have introduced new lighting products to the market to help improve safety in resident apartments without looking institutional. Some, such as bedframe lights or table lamps, have sensor technology to detect motion and turn on when a resident gets out of bed. Others use amber lighting to provide a soft glow that supports circadian rhythms while providing visual cues.

Use of grab bars and handrails with LED or amber lights has also become more common in resident rooms and bathrooms. For a project that’s currently on the boards for a senior living community in the Midwest, Thoma-Holec’s design team is putting in a lean rail with a soft amber light leading from the bed to the bathroom to help direct residents. There are also decorative products like wall mirrors that incorporate lighting in a sophisticated fashion, as well as other lighting design strategies that can cue residents without looking institutional. “In memory care, we often subtly light the frame of the bathroom door,” Bogart says. “It looks stylish and serves as a visual cue for orientation and wayfinding at night.”

Flooring is another design component that impacts falls. In assisted living and memory care, patterns shouldn’t be too busy or colorful, as this could be jarring for someone who is visually impaired and/or confused. “In memory care, we strive to have only a 20 percent shade difference in color patterns,” says Thoma-Holec. In independent and assisted living communities, she says she can use bolder patterns and colors to set the theme and style of purposeful spaces such as dining rooms or art studios.

Because of the desire for more and varied amenity spaces in senior living communities, designers are expanding their flooring options to include luxury vinyl tile (LVT), porcelain ceramic tile, broadloom carpet, modular carpet, rubber flooring, cork, linoleum, and higher-end engineered hardwood floors. This shift means designers must ensure there’s a smooth transition between various flooring materials to help prevent residents from catching an edge of a wheelchair, walker, or shoe. “Clunky standard rubber transition strips can be a trip hazard,” Bogart says, adding that several manufacturers have recently come out with sleek, slim profile transition strips and thicker LVT materials that approach the layer of thickness of adjacent carpet. “Without the difference in height [between the different flooring materials], we can do a very slim transition or no transition at all. It’s visually cleaner and physically less of an obstacle.”

While wood-grain vinyl plank flooring has become a style trend in senior living environments, there are some safety issues to consider, including maintenance and proper installation. “If it isn’t cleaned properly, the wear layer is damaged and becomes tacky,” Busalacchi says. This can become a trip hazard for residents with mobility issues who shuffle their feet, while wheelchairs or walkers might not roll over the surface as smoothly. “There needs to be lots of education on how to maintain this product. The fewer chemicals the better,” she says.

Shifting styles
Flooring and lighting designs aren’t the only style changes going on in senior living. Designers are also seeing a shift in furniture design, particularly the rise in popularity of mid-century modern furnishings. However, many say that making this style safe and comfortable for older adults is a design challenge. For example, Busalacchi says she recently met with a furniture manufacturer representative who showed her drawings for a new line of dining room chairs. “They were very mid-century modern designs, which is what the adult children are looking for these days. But it wasn’t necessarily functional,” she says. The biggest issue is the arms of the chairs, which can be too low, or the front of the arm can stop before the end of the seat, making it difficult for a senior to get out of the chair. “The arms can also be narrow, leaving little room for seniors to put their arms down and be comfortable,” Busalacchi says.

The shift from traditional to more modern styles in senior living is being driven in part by the design aesthetic of an aging population that’s staying active and engaged in personal interests and hobbies much longer than the generations before them. “Residents are also savvier now than ever before,” says Hillary DeGroff, senior associate at Perkins Eastman (Chicago). “They’re looking for spaces that emulate their personal style.” Another factor is the style preferences of the adult children who are helping their parents select a senior living community and may perceive a contemporary environment to be more reflective of the lifestyle they want for their parents.

However, DeGroff says many furniture, flooring, and wallcovering manufacturers haven’t quite caught up with the style shift. “We’re still looking at products that are more healthcare driven,” she says. “They can feel institutional.” To compensate, some designers turn to residential furnishings or finishes, which may have a more appealing style but aren’t necessarily suitable for a senior living environment. This can lead to problems with durability, comfort, and safety.

Still, many designers agree there are more options on the table than in the past. “Manufacturers are starting to understand that products have to be nice looking, not just workhorse functional,” Bogart says. This new aesthetic is often described as “resimercial”–finishes and furnishings that have the performance qualities of contract products but with a more residential character.

He advises to avoid furniture that’s too heavy or has sharp edges or corners so that seniors don’t catch their clothing on furnishings or bump into them and hurt themselves. For dining chairs, he prefers styles with in-line casters and finger pulls for ease of mobility, as well as arm heights that allow enough space for a person’s hands to fit under the tabletop edges without crushing their fingers. “Any functional design feature can be made attractive through thoughtful design,” he says. For example, finger pulls can be made into a design element or detail by considering their shape and form.

Selling points
Talking about how an environment is designed for safety without compromising style can offer senior living communities a competitive advantage. “It definitely could be a sales tool and a differentiator,” Busalacchi says. In the past, many seniors resisted things like grab bars because they didn’t want to be perceived as being old, but many designers believe that’s changing as consumers become more educated and better understand how the design of the physical environment impacts their health and safety. “We’re all so much more aware of our health and wellness now than ever before,” DeGroff says.

The integration of sensor technology in flooring and lighting products to detect movement and alert caregivers when a resident gets up to move around may also be attractive to the more tech-savvy boomers, while properly crafted marketing messages can present a positive spin on safety features that appeal to seniors. “We’ll see changes in the future on how we specify and provide products that will enhance the safety and well-being of residents,” Thoma-Holec says.

Sara Marberry is a healthcare design writer, blogger, and marketing consultant based in Evanston, Ill. She can be reached at 

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