We all know first responders are heroes on any given day, but amid a worldwide pandemic, caregivers and staff of senior living communities also are among those at the front lines. Whether working diligently to keep residents and staff members safe by keeping the virus out of their communities or treating residents who have contracted it, frontline staff members are just some of the dedicated individuals committed to ensuring that senior living residents have the safety they deserve.

Much of a senior living community’s ability to control viruses relies on the efficiencies within — from sanitization stations to personal care and medication delivery, to how meals are delivered and how social interaction is provided.

Here are four short-term and long-term actions related to design that COVID-19 will require of senior living communities, and some additional thoughts.

1. Encourage social distancing.

Although social distancing does not support our goal to create spaces for residents to socialize and engage in life-enriching activities, it is essential to control the spread of COVID-19. The challenge is maintaining residents’ sense of community and choice during this period of social isolation without experiencing loneliness.

There are amazing examples of caregivers focusing on resident engagement and relatives using technology to communicate through windows and video conferencing. Repurposing community amenities to allow residents to safely dine or participate in activities while social distancing will need to be done without compromising the hospitality aesthetic. Access to the healing powers of nature also will be increasingly important.

2. Plan for the potential of the spread of flu or another virus.

It is critical that senior living environments are easy to maintain every day, especially during flu season. COVID-19 has escalated that priority.

From a design perspective, creating flexible, aesthetically appealing solutions that can be disinfected without damaging surfaces will be tantamount. Antimicrobial, antifungal, soil-resistant fabrics have been the norm, but the design process now includes a more intense focus on which surfaces are considered high-touch.

Understanding the need to use durable materials is critical. Less expensive alternatives are not an option if they will not withstand the use of disinfectants and harsh chemicals. For example, imported granite is porous and, therefore, has the potential to retain germs, whereas quartz is nonporous and easy to clean. It is the reason that most health departments will allow quartz for certain food service applications.

3. Make room for new dining options.

Many issues have come to light as a result of this pandemic, including the fact that many senior living apartments do not have enough space for even a small dining table. It is assumed that because a resident will be eating all meals in the dining area or bistro, a dining space is not necessary in the apartment.

Now, regardless of a resident’s acuity level, units must include that space. There are several examples of accessories that enhance the food and medication delivery process – many that may be incorporated in future design.

4. Use moisture-resistant materials to prevent the spread of bacteria and other germs.

In all phases of the design process, designers must be discerning when it comes to material choices. Careful consideration should be given to the appropriateness of the material for each space. 

The same process should follow all phases of the furniture, fixtures and equipment specification process. Crypton fabric has a moisture barrier backing, is antimicrobial and antifungal, and assists in the prevention of germs being spread.

No surface is impervious, however, and proper maintenance and cleaning are critical. Fortunately, durable surface materials and fabrics are available in beautiful colors and patterns that result in aesthetically appealing, non-institutional environments.

Advice and additional thoughts

So what advice do we have for designers striving to support the health of communities while maintaining their aesthetics?

Design in senior living is a combination of healthcare and an equal mix of hospitality and residential thrown in.

Bodily fluids, bacteria, viruses including the flu, and the use of strong disinfectants are not new to the industry, but the ferocious effects of COVID-19 have escalated the need to think out of the box while remembering that form should always follow function. Senior living product manufacturers are at the forefront of material engineering and can recommend appropriate materials for specific uses.

Beyond that, community staff members’ health and psychological well-being is critical and can be supported by making space available for them to have a private moment, catch their breath or call family members to ensure them that they are OK. They should be able to shower, wash their hands frequently and have access to healthy food and beverages.

To thwart the opportunity for COVID-19 and other infections to enter, several communities have created a “general store” to enable staff members to purchase prepared meals or stock up on essentials. By reducing their exposure to the virus, this also eases workers’ burden of having to shop or prepare meals for their families.

Some senior living developers and operators will need to adjust to a new paradigm, but adding the square footage needed to accommodate these spaces will prove to be one of the best investments they could make.