Darla Esnard and Ryan Miyahira headshot
Darla Esnard and Ryan Miyahira

The senior living landscape is evolving, and a growing emphasis is being placed on active, independent lifestyles for older adults. As more individuals seek communities that offer both comfort and enrichment, the concept of active adult living will only continue to gain further momentum. These age-focused communities provide havens where residents can enjoy their retirement years surrounded by like-minded peers, in spaces designed to foster social connections and well-being.

So, what exactly are active adult communities? Although various models are emerging, the common thread is choice. It’s about the freedom to select one’s next adventure and all the details that come with it.

People want to choose their location, their companions, the services they want to pay for and the style of their homes — whether luxurious or simple. These communities offer carefully designed housing options for older adults, spanning from apartment-style living to single-family homes, catering to both luxury and cost-effectiveness.

Whether residents are downsizing from larger properties or seeking a change of scenery, these communities offer a maintenance-free lifestyle coupled with an array of luxurious amenities. From state-of-the-art fitness centers and inviting community lounges to tranquil outdoor spaces and vibrant social hubs, active adult communities are designed with residents’ lifestyles in mind. The goal is to create environments that support physical activity, social engagement and personal fulfillment, allowing residents to thrive in their golden years.

At the core of designing active adult communities lies a commitment to resident engagement and empowerment. People want opportunities for social interaction and events while also having the freedom to choose how, when and where they engage, in their own manner. As architects and designers, we work closely with community stakeholders to understand the unique needs and preferences of residents, ensuring that the built environment reflects their desires. Surveys, focus groups and ongoing dialogue provide invaluable insights that inform every aspect of the design, from layout and amenities to aesthetics and accessibility.

Flexibility is one of the core principles when designing active adult environments. The goal is to allow spaces to adapt to the evolving needs and interests of residents over time. Whether it’s entertaining friends, spending quality time with adult children and grandkids, maintaining health, or continuing to contribute to the community, people desire an environment that supports those aspects of life.

Inside homes, open areas are designated for entertaining. Shared areas such as multipurpose rooms, versatile outdoor zones and adaptable living spaces provide residents with the freedom to customize their experience and pursue their passions, whether it’s gardening, painting or participating in group exercises.

Activity areas such as art studios, classrooms and fitness rooms cater to diverse interests and naturally promote social interaction. Those spaces are designed to accommodate various activities and equipment preferences, ensuring that residents can engage in their preferred forms of physical and mental wellness.

Additionally, outdoor amenities such as pools, hot tubs and pickleball courts reflect residents’ emphasis on holistic wellness, whereas play areas cater to entertaining the grandkids. Meeting rooms also are essential, especially for residents who are still working or involved in boards and interests that require spaces for gathering. Dedicated work areas also prove beneficial for visiting family — grandparents can entertain the grandkids while parents attend Zoom calls for work.

Designing spaces that cater to active adults involves striking a balance between functionality, safety and aesthetics. It’s crucial to create environments that appeal to residents of all ages, without appearing overtly geared toward seniors. Incorporating features such as heavy-duty decorative towel bars, which also can serve as grab bars, or curbless shower bases with linear drains exemplify the fusion of safety and luxury.

This means avoiding the overuse of grab bars and other age-specific features that may inadvertently stigmatize the community. For many residents, transitioning to active adult communities represents their first experience with senior living after leaving their single-family homes. Incorporating familiar elements such as gardens, pet areas and other home-like features enhances residents’ sense of comfort and satisfaction.

Although people moving into active adult communities are active and tech-savvy, fundamentals of good senior living design still apply. Safety is paramount when it comes to designing active adult communities, and employing universal design principles is essential for creating spaces that are accessible and inclusive for residents of all ages and abilities.

Slip-resistant flooring without tripping hazards, well-lit pathways and task areas, and ergonomic furnishings enhance safety and comfort, whereas smart technology and security features provide residents with peace of mind, simultaneously improving the active adult living experience. Smart home automation, virtual communication platforms and wearable health monitoring devices are seamlessly integrated into the community, empowering residents to stay connected, informed and engaged.

As we prepare to step into the second half of 2024 and beyond, the landscape of active adult living is evolving, presenting boundless opportunities. The common thread weaving through active adult communities revolves around the freedom of choice.

Residents desire the autonomy to select their preferred services, amenities and community type, aligning with their special interests for the next phase of life. Embracing an entertaining open floor plan, architects and designers are poised to innovate and adapt, crafting environments that not only meet but anticipate the evolving needs of residents.

By prioritizing principles of flexibility, safety and lifestyle-oriented design, active adult communities are poised to remain vibrant, inclusive and welcoming spaces for generations to come.

Darla Esnard, principal, and Ryan Miyahira, senior principal, co-direct the Senior Communities Studio at Ankrom Moisan, a 41-year-old architecture and design firm with offices in Portland, OR; San Francisco; and Seattle.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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