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A great team
A great team

As senior housing providers aim to blend style and durability, designers are facing tougher choices than ever.

Kelley Hoffman, partner and interior designer for RDG, recently used furniture and furnishings from 88 manufacturers in a single clubhouse project.

In a separate, new-construction project at John Knox Village in Pampano Beach, FL, she mixed styles — casual, resin-coated wicker chairs grouped with hard-armed dining chairs — to deliver different support levels for residents with a range of preferences.

Hoffman's selections also meet her clients' preference for materials that keep residents safe, last long enough to make the investment worthwhile and avoid trends that can undermine a community's overall quality once dated.

As continuing care retirement and senior living communities grapple with aging in place and seek ways to accommodate home healthcare, high-quality, damage-resistant pieces have become ever more critical.

“There is a misnomer based on the level of care that you can sacrifice durability for aesthetics,” Hoffman says. “Durability needs to be at the forefront of every furniture selection.”

Hoffman points to Kwalu — long a trusted provider of casegoods and seating for skilled nursing facilities — as one company that has met provider demand for more visually pleasing products.

Newer transitional styling combined with the ability to withstand driving such changes in craftsmanship.

“Today's properties are completely different from those 20 years ago,” says Anna Chaney, lead designer for Flexsteel Industries. “The way properties are built and the research that has been done have been driving factors in changing the way manufacturers make furniture.”

Flexsteel's goal for its senior housing customers is a trifecta of safety, durability and comfort. Chaney says senior communities should remind residents both of the home they've always loved and a home they've always wanted.

Amenities, floor plans and lighting all play a part.

But furniture — by its presence throughout a building or across a campus — balances the overall look and needs of every property.

“It's really become all about being a utility player in this industry,” Chaney says. “Our goal is to produce furniture that is not only beautiful, but also easy for residents and caregivers to use.”

Hidden treasures

While much attention goes to big pieces in high-impact places — lobbies and dining areas, for instance — quality improvements also can be found underfoot or on the wall.

Altro launched its Aquarius line of luxury vinyl tile about five years ago. Though it always was resilient, its more hospital-like styling made a better fit in skilled nursing.

“Today, it has a very gentle, spa-like aesthetic,” says Susan Johnson, the company's senior living team leader. “We realized, yes, we're a performance product, but we need to bring out the style. And we're not compromising performance to do it.”

Now the company offers three levels of product (safety flooring, slip-resistant surfaces and smooth surfaces) that all can be made to feel part of a facility that goes for high-end finishes and warmth elsewhere on property.

Altro's Whiterock wall cladding also is in demand for what Altro bills as a “hygienic alternative to tiles that's impact-resistant, grout-free and easy to clean.”

Not only is the product ideal for moisture-prone places such as kitchens and baths, it comes in modern colors like sage and platinum to provide helpful contrast for seniors starting to have balance or orientation issues.

Back at John Knox Village, Hoffman uses texture sparingly on decorative walls, adding glossy hand-rails to break up a formal entry to a shared amenities space.

“It's the showcase,” she says. “You do try to get some impact there. But durability is still key. You want to be smart about how much of a product is smart to use.”

Paint typically is still favored in residential corridors, says Johnson, because its smoother finish is easier on knuckles that wrap around hand-rails for support.

The long view

Industrywide, experts are looking for more ways to add longevity to pieces that accommodate seniors with a wide variety of needs and abilities.

Back in the common areas, furniture designers are doing their best “to find that sweet spot between durability and comfort,” says Dean Jarrett, director of marketing for H Contract, a division of Hooker Furniture.

Although furniture designed for seniors housing can't have an institutional feel, it likely will come up against institutional realities such as durable equipment, bleach and other harsh chemicals and residents prone to trips, slips and falls.

Small touches, often unnoticed in one piece, can make a dramatic difference when used in groupings or throughout a building.

Jarrett points to rich finishes, exposed woods and high-quality, good-feeling fabrics as easy places to score in the looks department. Adding details to casegoods or residential-style pieces such as sofa tables also can be a hit.

“If a designer is mindful about where those pieces go, it can be a great application,” he says.

Although some elements were avoided for fear of breakage in the past, Jarrett advises his clients to launch hotel-like maintenance programs that look monthly for small repairs (such as gluing) that can save long-term.

Increasingly, functional supports are being incorporated in subtle ways that might cut down on maintenance and replacement costs.

H Contract's Layne Collection offers a contemporary take on the wingback chair, but its armrests include wood or Thermofoil caps that residents can push against to boost themselves to a standing position.

The result, Jarrett says, is a chair that shows less wear and tear (and is easier to clean).

Top coats that repel liquids and stains also are getting better, with many fabric manufacturers now opting for water-based products to cut down on off-gassing.

Flexsteel offers a selection of antimicrobial fabrics and developed a top-coat called FlexGuard II specifically for its senior living and healthcare lines.

Removable seat decks and moisture-resistant clean-outs that protect internal parts also continue to be in high demand in senior living settings.

The same advances can be seen in wooden bed frames, like those offered through Joerns.

“Furniture finish options continue to be the most varied and advancing innovation, with improving surface textures, colors and grains providing more customization than ever before,” Mulligan says.

Materials that provide scratch and wear resistance can be particularly important because scratches and dings allow cleaners to penetrate furniture. Mulligan reminds users that proper dilution of cleaners and regular wipe-downs can minimize the impact on the condition of the case goods.

Bed panels with authentic wood veneer are still popular among “the most discriminating communities,” Mulligan says. Complementary finishes serve as a cohesive design element between resident-owned furniture and articulating bed frames.

When it comes to other furniture with moving parts, a company's reputation is key for would-be buyers, says Hoffman. For instance, she's long relied on SpaceTables for its adjustable-height dining pieces with molded polyurethane edges that stand up to wheelchair arms. But its mechanism also is dependable, and that's key when she's buying enough pieces to fill a dining room.

Hoffman also only recommends powered recliners.

In March, H Contract rolled out its first line, helping senior living customers cut down damage to traditional lever-style handles (and improve resident satisfaction).

Jarrett acknowledges they are more costly upfront, but they cut down the risk to caregivers and residents who might otherwise try to push and pull the chairs into an upright position.

Having so many providers willing to pair their most durable products with residential styling gives new meaning to mix-and-match.

More than ever, it's simple enough to swap out a piece or two that has been damaged, buy a new cover or update some pieces without refurbishing a whole facility.

Over time, Hoffman says, that can serve senior communities best. “It reminds us of how our homes evolve,” she says.

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