Megan Freckelton

Eating is an inherently social activity that can unite people of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s an ideal way to spend time with friends and family.

Recognizing the need to help draw in visitors and loved ones, and in an effort to provide a more elevated, hospitality-oriented experience, many senior living operators are giving their dining options considerably more attention. Many are branching out from the traditional large cafeteria dining format of the past and making an effort to provide diverse, “destination dining” type options that mirror the feel of going out to a restaurant.

Even with a fresh focus on improving and expanding the dining experience, most senior living operators don’t take the same critical eye toward dining room design and details that traditional restaurant operators do. By partnering a long-time restaurant designer with a senior living designer and architect, we’ve compiled a few key tips, tricks and rules of thumb from the restaurant design world that can and should be applied when designing senior living dining spaces.

1. Sound. Acoustics may not typically be at top of the priority list, but they really should be. According to Zagat’s “State of American Dining in 2015,” noise is the second most common complaint among restaurant-goers (after bad service), and the effect that poor acoustics can have on senior living residents is obvious.

Designs that incorporate high ceilings, wood floors and a lot of windows can increase noise substantially, which can make dining an isolating, rather than social, experience, especially for seniors, who are often hard of hearing. Make an effort to avoid an abundance of hard surfaces, as they can cause sounds to ricochet around a room and echo. Treating the ceiling is one of the best solutions for sound control. The addition of acoustical ceiling tiles or dropped clouds (panels that hang from the ceiling and capture and absorb sound) can be enormously helpful.

Also, be sure to keep music in mind. The type and volume of music should match the personality of the space. Soft music makes people feel more comfortable having intimate conversations, whereas louder music may create a more fun atmosphere in a bar or bistro setting.

2. Lighting. When people think of eating in a retirement or assisted living community, it often calls to mind the stereotypical image of a depressing, fluorescent-lit, oversized room. Incorporating both natural and artificial lighting is one of the best ways to combat this cliché and create a welcoming environment that feels more like a traditional restaurant and less like a cafeteria.

Windows with pleasant exterior views are a huge part of establishing an inviting setting, although care should be taken to avoid too much glare, which can be challenging for seniors. Window coverings should be adjusted throughout the day, and interior materials such as carpet and fabric can help reduce sun glare on hard surfaces.

In addition, indirect ambient lighting, such as that provided by cove lights, is a great way to create a softer, less harshly lit atmosphere, as is the use of accent lighting to bump up and highlight key areas such as individual tables or art on the walls.

In terms of color temperature, 2700 K is what most restaurant operators strive for, as it emits a nice, warm light that will enhance the dining experience. (Ask your designer about color temperature, or read an online explanation such as this one.)

Being mindful about lighting also means being aware of potential light pollution and making efforts to avoid having light enter the dining space from the kitchen, the exterior and other adjacent areas. Unintentional lighting can shine harshly in the eyes of diners or accidentally cast people’s faces or food in an unflattering light.

3. Kitchen considerations. Open, country-style kitchens are a huge trend in restaurant design right now and commonly are used in memory care communities, where kitchens are smaller and meant to integrate staff and residents for a more intimate, interactive meal service.

That said, before using an open kitchen design, it’s critical to ensure proper ventilation. The more open the kitchen is, the better the ventilation system needs to be. Appliances such as ovens, some dishwashers and even high-end mixers can require venting, along with restrooms that are in the dining room or adjacent to it.

It’s important to think through all of those elements in the early design stages and ensure that you’re not venting noxious odors onto an outdoor patio or other areas of the community. Carbon filters or “scrubbers” commonly are used in restaurants to help neutralize the air coming out and to ensure that cooking or restroom smells don’t spill over into undesirable places.

4. Precise space planning is one of the chief concerns of restaurant designers and is equally key in senior living communities, where the square footage allotted per person differs from a traditional restaurant. Whereas most full-service restaurants plan for 12 to 15 square feet per person when planning potential seat count, a senior living community should anticipate needing 20 to 30 square feet per person for independent living, 30 to 40 square feet for assisted living and 40 to 50 square feet for residents who have memory issues or require skilled nursing.

Circulation patterns for both staff and residents — from tables to restrooms, kitchen to tables, and tables to the main entrance and exit — should be clear and plotted on a “circulation map” ahead of time. This is especially important in senior living, where pathways must remain open for residents with mobility devices. What’s more, circulation patterns can be affected by the style of dining, such as buffet lines or counter service versus traditional table service. Typically, allowing enough room for one wheelchair or walker “parking” space per table is preferable.

Additionally, furniture spacing between tables should be between 48 and 60 inches depending on the community’s occupancy type. For example, 48-inch aisles are acceptable for independent living, where mobility devices are less prevalent, whereas 60-inch aisles would be appropriate for assisted living and memory care, where walkers and wheelchairs are more commonly used.

5. Dining concepts. Some of the top food trends in the restaurant world also can be integrated into senior living communities.

One of the most popular concepts is “theater dining,” or an open kitchen where patrons can watch the action as a form of entertainment. In a senior living space, this could include a lowered counter along a central island near the kitchen, where residents can pull up a chair or wheelchair, converse with kitchen staff or care providers, and even potentially engage in meal prep.

Dim sum carts, enabling diners to choose dishes off carts that travel through the restaurant, also are in vogue and are a great idea for senior living communities, where patrons may prefer to see their options presented to them rather than strain to read off a menu.

Farm-to-fork dining continues to gain momentum, with a focus on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients and simple but high-quality dishes.

The recent interest and excitement around craft cocktails goes hand-in-hand with this uptick in desire for artisanal, small-batch food. Craft cocktails also are an easy menu add that can help create a hand-crafted, upscale ambiance.

Leading-edge assisted and senior living communities would do well to use these tips from the restaurant world during the planning and design phases. This type of extra thought and attention to detail ultimately will lead to a more desirable and hospitality-infused environment and one that enhances the overall experience of residents and visitors.

Megan Freckelton is a senior associate and restaurant interior designer at OZ Architecture in Denver, where she has led the interior design of approximately 30 restaurants. She may be reached at [email protected].

Jami Mohlenkamp (pictured) is a principal at OZ Architecture and the leader of the firm’s senior living practice area. He is passionate about creating spaces that elevate the daily living experience, enable aging in place and allow for independence and wellness of residents. He can be reached at [email protected].

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