Top 10 safety and security considerations when designing a senior living community

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Chad Ulman
Chad Ulman

Giving attention to the safety and security of your senior living community will have a powerful, positive effect on resident satisfaction. Although building codes are helpful, it is beneficial to go above and beyond established standards.

Here's a top 10 list of items of which to be mindful when designing a property for older adults:

  1. Windows. Be cognizant of window design, operation and location. Install limiters to control how far a window can open, if operable windows are selected. Be aware of all windows on the property, not just those in resident areas.
  2. The exterior. As you know, controlling access in and out of the building is immensely important. Sensor lighting surrounding the property also is important, however, because it deters unwanted visitors and illuminates shared entry points.
  3. Planning for disasters. Unfortunately, every part of our country is susceptible to disaster. Depending on your region, be sure your design considers fallout areas for tornado and/or hurricane safety, window protection or wall reinforcement, power or generator back-up, and more. Work with local emergency preparedness directors to ensure that you've considered all scenarios.
  4. Handrails / grab bars. Handrails play an important role in fall prevention. Install secure handrails that run along both sides of the stairs and public corridors, even if not required for your level of care. Incorporate rest areas with benches or chairs along the corridors for residents who become fatigued. Install grab bars in shower, tub and toilet areas so residents don't reach for potentially unstable fixtures such as towel bars and sliding glass doors. In fact, we install grab bars as towel bars for another layer of safety. Fold-down grab bars on both sides of the toilet give staff members more flexibility in placing residents. Whatever hand dominance a senior may have can be provided in any marketed room, versus wall-mounted grab bars only on the right or left side.
  5. Bathrooms. Designing for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance might not be enough. Providing sufficient space for two staff members to care for a resident when necessary will allow increased flexibility in determining who can be admitted and cared for safely. Be alert when designing bathrooms — especially around showers, tubs and toilets — to allow space for staff assistance and maneuvering of mechanical lifts. European showers (curbless, tiled, with step-in) give staff the room to get in, move around and assist residents. Add a shower seat with rubber pads on the bottom for residents who may be unsteady on their feet. Although showers can come with seats that are built in, a portable seat offers more flexibility and can be stored when not in use. Installing a handheld showerhead, set on a sliding bar with a six-foot hose, is ideal for older adults and can be used when standing or sitting.
  6. Nurse or staff stations. It is easier to anticipate, identify and meet needs when staff can see and hear what the residents are doing. To this end, nurses' stations that are decentralized in the household will enable staff members to best serve residents. Being out among residents will make it easier to react to a problem, or prevent one completely.
  7. Secured and outdoor areas. For resident safety, contemplate your community's secured and unsecured areas. Be certain that residents cannot access unmonitored areas by providing lockouts at elevators and delaying or alarming egress at exterior doors. Additionally, be certain that outdoor areas are secure in terms of level and walkable paths, easy-to-transition-to seating and sunlight controls in resting areas.
  8. General furnishings and fixtures. Foresight can provide years of benefits in many ways. Avoid sharp corners on casework and counters, and choose furniture that can be moved yet is sturdy and durable.  Carpeted surfaces create a challenging surface for operating wheelchairs and walkers. If you install hard-surface flooring, choose nonslip tiles or sheet vinyl. Additionally, transition strips on flooring can create a tripping hazard or provide a barrier for walkers, even when they are considered low profile. Consider tapering the subsurface below the finish floor to make transitions smoother (carpet to tile or wood floor). Doors swinging into a confined space, such as bathrooms, can trap a person inside. Position them to swing out for easier access by staff and emergency personnel, or use pocket or barn doors.
  9. Designing highly flexible spaces. A decline in cognitive and physical abilities makes older adults more vulnerable and creates automatic challenges. Be certain that bathroom cabinetry, books shelves, shower controls and power outlets don't force residents to reach too high, too low or too far. Create open living space with larger pathways between furniture to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs. Provide appliance shutoffs so that staff can control what appliance can be used in an apartment kitchenette or open community kitchen. As residents' needs and cognitive abilities change, they can age in place and the staff can control the environment for their safety.
  10. Lighting. Falls are the leading cause of death and serious injury among people aged 65 or more years. Personal factors, which include muscle weakness, balance problems and limited vision are typical contributing factors. One of the most significant adjustments that can be made is to address poor lighting, especially on stairs. Motion-detector lighting in rooms create a safe environment while being energy-efficient. Incorporating natural daylight helps bring the outdoors in and contributes to the health and well-being of residents. Install nightlights or sensor lighting in areas that are frequented at night, such as near the bed and the path to the bathroom.

As you work with your design partner on creating a new community or on renovating an existing one, resident safety and security undoubtedly are some of your top priorities. Making sure the community is designed beyond code minimums will provide many benefits for your residents and staff.

Chad Ulman is director of architecture for Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction and has 20 years of experience in the design and construction profession. A graduate of the University of Minnesota with both a Master of Architecture and Bachelor of Arts in Architecture degrees, he is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the Society for the Advancement of Gerontological Environments, as well as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-accredited professional. Ulman can be reached at culman@hoffman.net.

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