How interior design can affect the health and well-being of seniors

Cynthia Warner
Cynthia Warner

Interior design can affect several aspects of a senior living community, including its reputation, revenue, resident happiness, staff morale and more.

In fact, many older adults and their family members cite an attractive and “home-like” appeal as a strong determining factor when choosing a senior living community, and it's no surprise. Of course, no one, regardless of age, wants to live in a home that is dark, worn, outdated, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing. Design can be especially important to the elderly, however, considering that many of them spend the majority of each day at home.

Having an attractive and comfortable design concept is important for many reasons, including overall happiness, but one of the most important and overlooked contributions that interior design can make is on the health and well-being of residents.

“Designing spaces that contribute to the health of the people who inhabit them is a complex task that requires skill and expertise,” according to the American Society of Interior Designers. Design professionals who are educated in health and wellness issues related to senior living can provide accurate advice on the effects of lighting, flooring, furniture, community and outdoor spaces and color choices.

Lighting

Ensuring that your community has proper lighting in hallways is imperative to helping residents navigate safely without bumps, falls or getting lost. This applies to all communal areas as well, such as community and reading rooms, theaters, exercise areas and dining spaces, where lighting helps avoid injury or other hazards with utensils and food.

Interior lighting also can help the body know what time of day it is. Circadian rhythms are particularly important in senior living communities, where residents typically spend the majority of their day indoors.

Flooring

As you might expect, wise flooring choices can help prevent falls and aid seniors' overall mobility. Although rugs make beautiful accent pieces in many individuals' homes, they are a hazard in senior living communities, where they can cause people to trip.

Flooring also can play a role in the acoustics of an area. Carpet, for instance, can improve acoustics, which allows residents to hear better and engage with others.

Regarding hard-surface flooring, a shiny finish may cause nervousness in a resident with lower vision acuity, who may see the floor as being slippery and, therefore, may be hesitant to walk on it, thus decreasing community involvement. Unfortunately, the simple mental power of nervousness can increase the risk of falls, so we suggest flooring materials with a matte finish.

And use a baseboard that differentiates the floor from the walls to help older adults see the difference in surfaces and avoid bumping into a wall.

Furniture choices

The furniture in senior living communities may be used by numerous people, multiple times per day.

Consider the seating in dining and community rooms, for example. It may be moved back and forth several times per day, and tables that may be used for many purposes.

For this reason, the furniture in such spaces must be highly durable and sturdy. Seating options also must be more upright and firm to ensure that residents can get up easily from the seated position.

Community spaces

Community spaces play a significant role in a seniors' health and well-being. From a social perspective, community spaces affect a senior's social health in the ways you might expect: increasing social interaction, engagement and positive feelings of being part of a community.

From a safety perspective, the spaces must be designed to allow for ease of mobility, keeping in mind that some residents may require a cane, walker or wheelchair and need more space to move and turn around. Designers must create spaces that have more open areas and avoid any tight or cramped places that could become congested and cause safety concerns.

Color choices

Older adults who require memory care or have other cognitive impairments often suffer from a loss of appetite. Warmer colors, such as oranges and reds, have been shown to help stimulate appetite, making these great colors in communities that care for those with memory or other cognitive needs.

In such communities, and in skilled nursing facilities, where residents also may become agitated more easily, colors such as blues and warm grays can be calming and help reduce agitation.

As the eye ages and yellows, however, it becomes more difficult for older adults to discern certain colors. Dark blues are seen as black and can be conveyed as a void or hole in certain fabrics or floors, which can lead to the further agitation of seniors with cognitive impairments.

Outdoor spaces

Many research studies have shown the health benefits of spending time outdoors.

Being outside or in nature can help reduce stress and aches, speed up recovery, increase creativity and brain function, increase vitamin D intake and improve the quality of sleep. Adequate sun exposure also is important to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.

Today, many senior living communities have started creating more outdoor spaces or improving existing ones. They can be designed to consider mobility and encourage social activity.

Cynthia Warner is the co-founder and lead designer at Warner Design Associates in San Mateo, CA.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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