When it comes to buying new furniture, assisted living communities can’t afford to focus on style alone.

Today’s residents are more ambulatory and facility cleaning protocols more stringent than they were just 10 years ago — meaning even the best furniture can expect to take a beating routinely.

The right knowledge, however, can leave residents sitting on a good investment. The trick is striking the right balance between function, fashion and financial return.

“Return on investment is important,” says Jane Rohde, principal with JSR Associates, a senior-design specialist. “Furniture’s going to impact safety, marketing, resident satisfaction — even employee satisfaction.”

Rohde says a 7- to 10-year cycle for furniture replacement is common in senior living settings. So if your facility is ready for a facelift, but the budget’s not, what’s the best approach?

  • Put the most money into pieces that will be used the most often.
  • Look for multi-purpose pieces.
  • Consider rethinking materials that cost too much just a few years ago.
  • Encourage residents to bring their own furnishings when space allows.
  • Choose quality over quantity (unless you can get quantity pricing on quality pieces). 

That’s the advice of pros in the furniture market’s burgeoning healthcare sector.

“Don’t skimp on quality,” says Bethany Luhrs, an interior designer with Atlanta-based THW Interiors. “A good piece of furniture will last you a long time — sometimes as long as the design and interiors are still viable…. It is far better to have less furniture with higher quality than quantity.”

Jack Armstrong, executive vice president of  Cooltree, estimates 95 percent of furniture in assisted living communities came from residential or commercial furniture vendors until about five years ago.

Suddenly, the industry has taken note of senior living’s need for more durable products in a variety of price points. They’re paying attention to things like stain resistance and seating depth and adding more selection.

“We’re designing all of our furniture, whether casegoods or seating, for healthcare,” says Armstrong, whose company is a three-year-old offshoot of Artone. “We understand the environment.”

Damage control

While designers are busy creating hospitality-inspired interiors, on-site staff members must deal with the damage an aging population can do to furniture that only looks suitable for senior living.

“The typical wooden chairs and tables are simply not holding up,” says Michael Zusman, CEO of Kwalu. “When the furniture is beautiful and can stand up to the repeated punishment of knocks from carts, walkers and wheelchairs, as well as the constant cleanings of a senior living environment, then communities can say goodbye to beat up and worn-looking tables and chairs.”

Wood is still the preferred frame in senior living, but Armstrong says the tide is starting to turn toward non-wood options like all-steel frames. Designers have resisted their use, especially in formal dining rooms. 

That’s where Armstrong says they can be most beneficial, since dining chairs are the type that get the most use. While a facility might get by with a nice-looking seating arrangement in a quiet common area, dining chairs are pushed, pulled and leaned on for support daily. 

Rohde appreciates the functional advantages of stronger steel frames but acknowledges they’ve been a hard sell to clients, who say they’re “too cold.”

Seeing the price differential, purchasing teams often have been happy to stick with wood chairs and sofas. But Armstrong expects more selection will soon lead to price drops in steel or aluminum alternatives, making the choice more appealing.

And investing in steel frame pieces could offer critical paybacks. The typical wood-framed pieces aren’t designed to meet the demands of constant transfers and can be prone to breaking down — or even tipping.

Pieces that are inexpensive but too low or made without strong arms could create a potential safety hazard.

“I’ve been in facilities where I’ve seen residents pushing and pulling each other because they’re stuck in their seats,” says Rohde, who has designed communities from the East Coast to China.

Luhrs agrees that factors such as size, seat depth and height, and dense seat foam are critical for today’s more ambulatory assisted living communities.

“Though most facilities aim to achieve a homelike environment, it is important to select materials that are resistant to moisture, stains and frequent cleaning,” she says.

Maintenance and care can help protect an investment without adding significant up-front dollars, says Lynn Vogeltanz, studio lead for the selections studio at Direct Supply Aptura.

Fabric selection

Vogeltanz likes Crypton fabrics, which provide stain resistance and a moisture barrier to keep fabric “looking great.” An extractor should be used on ground-in stains, along with the least abrasive cleaning solution possible — always used in line with manufacturer’s cleaning instructions and warranty details. 

Buyers also should consider drop-through seating with removable cushions and an open seat deck that allows crumbs and bodily fluids to fall to the floor instead of compromising the piece.

Rohde hopes to see more assisted living communities choose companies that make furniture that’s easily de-constructed when it is damaged. If the base of a couch takes one too many hits from a walker, it can be replaced. The same holds for chair arms and other components.

“Then you don’t have to replace the entire piece,” Rohde says.

In assisted living communities, where facilities might include wellness centers, libraries, theaters and business centers in addition to residents’ units, a full renovation can require a large variety of pieces.

“Senior living room boundary lines are being blurred as multi-purpose spaces emerge,” says Kwalu’s Zusman. “An integrated look is crucial when it comes to furnishing all areas of a very open floor plan.”

Sometimes, working with one vendor can produce that integration, as well as cost savings.

Volume discount

If you have the capital but can’t weather a significant drop in census, Rohde recommends buying in bulk and warehousing pieces. She’s worked with several clients that earned a manufacturer’s discount and saved money on freight by buying enough pieces for a complete renovation, even if working on only two to four rooms at a time.

Also consider buying items that can serve more than one purpose, or those that can be moved easily from room to room as needs change. A theater chair with a tablet arm and an ottoman, suggests Zusman, works equally well in a media room, library or lounge. 

Stocking a few shared pieces also can work in combination with policies that encourage residents to bring as much of their own furniture to personal rooms as possible. 

Luhrs says the opportunity to furnish a room allows residents and family to personalize the space, maintaining a sense of independence and familiarity. 

For those who are outfitting bedrooms, custom casegoods aren’t necessarily out of reach.

Cooltree debuted its Metropolitan casegoods collection at the 2014 Leading Age Idea House, for example, and it’s been popular. Armstrong says that’s because the line’s mix of traditional floor furniture and wall-mounted space-saver units deliver versatility which, he says, the market had been demanding.