CDA Interviews: Designing Senior Living Experiences

Jul 8, 2022

The Boomer generation is, well, booming –– into their third act. As employers contend with growing numbers of younger employees quitting in the great resignation, the COVID-19 recession and gradual labor market recovery has also been accompanied by an increase in retirement among adults ages 55 and older. As of the third quarter of 2021, 50.3% of U.S. adults 55 and older said they were out of the labor force due to retirement. As one of the biggest populations begin the sunset chapter of their lives, increased demand for senior living facilities are carving out their moment in the architecture and design world. Today’s retiree doesn’t look anything like older populations in previous generations, and their robust needs and desires are offering architects the opportunity to take a fresh look at previously ignored space. 

CDA CEO, Lauren Chipman, sat down with Senior Design Manager, Meg Stevens, to discuss the rising demand for a new approach to Senior Living.

Lauren: Meg, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today. I’m so excited to talk a little bit about the world of Senior Living.

Meg: Thanks for having me, Lauren. This will be fun!

A Bit About Meg...

Lauren: Before we get to Senior Living I wanted to first ask about your personal journey as an interior designer and what has led you to where you are now. 

Meg: In college I’d done an internship in residential design, so after I graduated I went back to that firm and did a couple of years in residential design. But I was always really interested in commercial design. I joined a high-end hospitality firm – mostly hotels and resorts. After my time there, I joined Chipman Design and have been designing Senior Living properties for the last seven years. I was immediately intrigued by the field because it truly combines all three sectors that I had experience in: residential, hospitality and commercial.

What Is Senior Living?

Lauren: Could you define what is Senior Living? That sector has really changed dramatically in the last few decades.

Meg: They are residential communities that are equipped with amenities, social activities, healthcare. The goal is making people feel good and as comfortable as possible where they are during the last chapter of their life.

We're trying to change what people think of when it comes to Senior Living. My mom worked in a nursing home for many years as a social worker, so I have that firsthand experience of seeing nursing homes. This is not what we're working on. This is not what Senior Living is. It's very different than the past.

Lauren: Such a key piece of why your team is so successful is that they design with the guiding principle of considering these properties as a person's home. It is very much relying on those residential and hospitality design backgrounds. Do you work on projects just within the Chicagoland area or are you working nationally? 

Meg: We work throughout the country.

Lauren: I have to imagine these communities that you're designing for look different if they’re in Chicago versus Florida or California. What does your process look like for that? 

Meg: We're really lucky to work with a client who believes strongly that each community should feel specific and special to that region. As designers it’s very fulfilling to be able to conceptualize a new design with every project. 

For example, a community in Chicago might feel polished or urban. A community in Tampa, Florida is going to feel vastly different. We also design a lot of communities in the Midwest and Colorado as well which immediately conjure up these ideas of prairies or mountains. We lean into that because that’s truly what resonates with the residents. We start off each project conceptually; we'll look at the region and study that area so that we can put in little touches here and there that the residents can relate to and are drawn to. 

Lauren: That sounds so creatively fulfilling! Another part of your work is designing for ‘aging in place.’ Can you outline the different levels of care?

Meg: Sure. So there are four levels of care. I'll start with the least amount of care required: independent living. Independent living is exactly how it sounds. It's basically somebody's apartment. They are paying for living in that community and all the amenities that come with it. The programs, the social hours and the community aspect are what draws people in. They’re able to go to the store and have cars and dine as they would like to. It really is apartment living within people of a similar age.

Assisted living is next. Assisted living is similar to independent living, however if you just need more assistance, you're going to transfer to that level of care. Again, it's going to be apartment living, but this time you're going to have nursing staff to come and help you while administering medication and checking on your wellbeing.

Another level is memory care. People with dementia and Alzheimer's are usually in these types of communities and that's a whole different level of care and assistance from nursing staff. It's really about safety at that point. Additionally, designing for structured and engaging social hours, activities and spaces are really important for residents that have memory issues.

And the last type is skilled nursing. Skilled nursing requires the most amount of assistance from a nursing staff standpoint. Some residents need long term care, while others may be recovering from a surgery or injury and need rehabilitation services.

Those four levels of care are industry standard. It doesn't vary from property to property or community to community. It is standard across the nation across clients in this sector.

Lauren: Are there ever different levels of care within the same community?

Meg: Great question! There are communities called CCRCs, which are Continuing Care Retirement Communities. That is where you move into one community and it offers all four levels of care and offers all of the levels of care so that you don't have to then go find a new place to live as your needs change.

Lauren: That's why it's so important that these communities feel like your home because it really is. Are the projects you're working on primarily new construction or renovation? 

Meg: A majority of our Senior Living work are renovations. As you can imagine, people are very tied to their surroundings when they move in. So, going in and renovating these properties can be very difficult for some residents. Additionally, the staff may be accustomed to current operations and how a space currently functions. So we have a lot of programming conversations upfront with the staff, the residents, and the client.

Building A Community For Senior Living

Lauren: So, outside of just the residential component it sounds like there's a lot of community gathering space. What are some of the amenities you're seeing both traditionally, and some of the new ones that are being introduced?

Meg: Traditionally, we program arts and crafts areas, lots of lounges for gathering with soft seating, activity rooms that can serve as multi-purpose rooms for different activities, meetings, etc. We’re also trying to push the envelope and look at different amenity spaces. We just installed a music area that we're getting, really good feedback on. It has guitars, pianos, tambourines and even a record player so residents can bring their records and have listening parties. This has become a really hot area at the community! Other new programming includes fitness and yoga studios, test kitchens where local chefs can demo recipes for residents to learn and make in their rooms. And then of course there are outdoor amenities. Golf is the old standby, as well as Bocce ball courts, lawn game areas, fire pits and grills. We even have some properties with biking paths where residents can rent a bike in the lobby. Our goal is to craft a high end luxury experience that residents get to enjoy every day. 

Lauren: The concept of age has changed so much over the years and what a 70 year old was capable of 20 years ago, feels very different from 70 year olds today. It’s so interesting to see all the ways you’re addressing that activity level. Now, you did not mention what might be my favorite part – as someone who's not a senior – happy hour at the bar.

Meg: Right happy hour. Our client is a big proponent of that. Reason being, you have a little bit more fun and in your older age it’s nice to be able to socialize within the community. We are responsible for designing a space that is flexible throughout the day, with breakfast and lunch being served during the day and the ability to provide drinks for a social atmosphere at night.

Designing With Age In Mind

Lauren: Obviously your team is skilled at creating a high-end, hospitality environment. However, you do have to make modifications to ensure that it's a comfortable and safe environment for the residents. What are some of the more technical aspects of design and architecture that our team keeps in mind?

Meg: Interiors and finishes have to be more durable than most commercial spaces. Our job is to make it feel like a home, but be as durable as possible. It’s a place that will receive high traffic. The industry has come a long way when it comes to treating fabrics and making them feel cozy while also being durable and easy to clean.

Meg: And then, when it comes to architecture it’s all about meeting and exceeding ADA guidelines. With a resident base that uses more wheelchairs, electric scooters or walkers than average, we design paths of egress and path circulation to be larger than normal. We have to make sure there's plenty of clearance. Or, for example, when it comes to dining or bar seating, we don’t put a chair at every space to allow for people to come up on their wheelchairs and not have to push that chair aside.

Lauren: At one of our weekly Chipman Design town halls recently, we were so lucky to have one of our great collaborators, Rachel from Shaw Contract meet with us, and she was talking about pile height on carpets and some of the challenges that come with flooring transitions.

Meg: Yes. Flooring is a key aspect of successful Senior Living design. We need to have low pile height because people can trip over high carpet in their walkers or wheelchairs. Also, we won't specify a carpet pad because they can make somebody unsteady on their feet.

That said, we have to consider specific items when designing for memory care. People with Alzheimer's or dementia have weak depth perception so we can't have large transitions that are dark because the resident might perceive that as a void.

Lauren: Wow, that’s really interesting. Another big part of any hospitality project, whether it be hotel or Senior Living, is art and accessories. Some of our Senior Living projects have miles of corridor, right? How do you select and specify for all that area?

Meg: It’s a really big part of our process. And, in fact, our process with Senior Living interior design is soup to nuts. We'll come in, design the entire space, create drawings, specify furniture and install the accessories, down to the last step where it's placing a flower for the photo shoot. We take care of it all.

Art and accessories are a large undertaking. When it comes to, as you said, miles of corridor and artwork selections we try to keep the selections happy and upbeat. So it is a big undertaking. And even with hundreds and hundreds of pieces we select them individually, one by one. There's really no secret to it when it comes to the accessories. It just takes time, patience, and our whole team being very detail oriented.

Lauren: It's incredible. And, you’re right – it’s soup to nuts. It's the concepting, the designing, the documenting, working with the procurement agent to get everything bought, answering the general contractor’s questions in the field, and even then, it’s not over, is it Meg? Because we have Installation. And this is one of the unique parts of your team: you go and install every single property.

Meg: It's a lot of coordination and communication. There are a lot of upfront meetings: conversations with procurement agents, warehouses, and logistic coordination. There's a lot that goes to coordinating an install. It’s the big reveal but it takes many days, weeks and months to coordinate that.

My team and various collaborators from the client, contractor or the procurement agent are present for the install. We work 10-14 hours a day to help facilitate. We’ll go ahead and show them where the furniture goes, we place all the artwork, make sure all the accessories are in the right spot, and then we make it look finished.

It’s also the most rewarding part of our job. It is physically demanding, but it puts a smile on every designer's face. We get to see all the product that we specified fill out the space. It's very rewarding and we always walk away really happy and proud. We get to also see the residents react to it and see what they like the best. It really is the moment we get to see it all come together. 

Lauren: And when you’re talking about these all day, multiple day installations, many people may not realize that building is not empty. This isn't a hotel that can have sections closed down for a remodel. You are working around the residents and, like you said, listening to their feedback while you install. 

Meg: Yes, when you are working in an occupied or alive building it’s much more challenging not only because of their feedback, but also safety concerns. We have to make sure things are out of the way; we're not able to just prop up artwork and assume that we're going to hang that later. We want to make sure handrails are accessible. We have to coordinate with the staff to make sure that if there are events that are occurring in the community, they're organized elsewhere, and not in the spaces that we need to be working. It's a really large production.

The Future of Senior Living

Lauren: The Senior Living industry has been in such a state of revolution over the last decade or so. As our parents are aging and we think about them, and even ourselves possibly living in these communities, what do you think this sector is going to look like in the future?

Meg: I think it’s going to continue to push outside of the box and what we know of Senior Living today. Hospitality, along with high-end residential, will be more prevalent in designs. 

With more of the population aging, this sector is poised to grow considerably. There will be a demand for luxury, diversity, connection, resident engagement and purpose. In order to meet these demands, the senior living design industry will need to pivot and provide environments to allow this growth.

Lauren: That's interesting. I also imagine as time passes, more residents will be very comfortable with technology. I think it will be interesting to see how that affects our Senior Living projects. 

Meg: Absolutely, as new generations enter communities, the demand for technology increases. Class rooms where technology classes are taught, business stations throughout the community, apps for communication with the concierge are just a few ways technology continues to permeate.

Lauren: Absolutely. My last question for you actually doesn't have to do with Senior Living at all. In your last seven years at Chipman you have built a strong, dedicated team. You have an energy about you that is commanding and also caring and I think that it's such a great combination. You're really an extraordinary leader. As you've grown your team very organically, how do you keep them motivated and build their skill set up?

Meg: I love that question. Thank you for saying all those things. I love my team. I am extremely passionate about my team. They are excellent people. I literally can't say enough great things about them. All I want to do is cheerlead them and motivate them and support them.

I always tell them, if there's a mistake, please come to me. It's an open door policy and we'll figure it out together. For me, growing them is giving them more freedom. As they grow, I get to step back and let them run and design. That's exciting for me. I love the ownership they take on these projects and I love at the end of an install, I can say, you really did it. This is your design and you made it come to life and everyone is so proud of you.

Lauren: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time, Meg. This has been just an absolute delight and all of us appreciate your expertise.

Meg: Thanks, Lauren. Great to speak with you!