A senior care facility’s interior design identity is defined by furnishings. Chairs, tables, lamps, couches and even flooring create an instant impression on visitors. These impressions can be critical to the facility’s success.

Pieces that create a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere are key for conveying a “home-like” environment instead of a medical setting. Aesthetics are definitely a top criterion in selecting the appropriate furnishings. Yet attractiveness is not the only consideration — long-term care facilities also must assess how the furnishings are used and maintained.

That is why manufacturers are increasingly focusing on creating the right balance between aesthetics and durability, says Michael Zusman, CEO of Kwalu. The chief concern, he says, is a resident population that is older, frailer and more vulnerable in the senior housing market.

“The rise in acuity levels of residents has been a game changer, especially for those facilities in independent living, assisted living and memory care,” Zusman says. “More often, these residents are suffering from dementia and likely need a walker or wheelchair. This has forced providers to look for more durable options for furniture because the typical wooden chairs and tables are simply not holding up.”

Kwalu’s priorities have been to create pieces that have visual appeal while incorporating a solid construction that can withstand the repeated punishment of knocks from carts, walkers and wheelchairs, Zusman says. 

The “Designed to Last” product line carries an upscale image but incorporates more material to protect fabric and chair arms against knocks and overall wear-and-tear, he explains. Additionally, extra handgrips at the tops of the dining chairs are designed to make it easier for caregivers to move the chairs around.

Aesthetics, stain resistance and durability are the focal points at Herman Miller. Chris Silguero, director of the company’s Contract Division, says the three characteristics “are all vying for the top spot.” The company’s overarching mission, he says, has been to provide furnishings that create a home-like environment that is warm in appearance and touch, yet is built to fit the tough needs of long-term care residents.

“Ultimately, we want an aesthetically pleasing, durable product that is functional in the most intense environments,” he says. “We use krypton fabrics, which give an element of stain resistance. Amazing progress has been made in the touch and look of these fabrics, which allows for us to accomplish all three of our objectives.”

Although the rising acuity level has not changed the way Herman Miller makes furniture, Silguero says it has “opened us to additional designs built to address this rising level.  Over the course of the next several months, we will be launching products for this purpose.”

More durability needed

The “typical wood chairs” that have long been staples of the eldercare environment are no longer serviceable in today’s facilities, Zusman believes. Jack Armstong, vice president of business development at Cooltree, agrees, noting how chair arms bear pressure as the resident uses them to stand up. This causes pieces of a wooden chair to separate and potentially leads to a fall or injury. 

Wooden chairs also don’t do well at absorbing the bumps and scratches inflicted by wheelchairs or medical equipment, he says.

“Operators simply can’t ignore the liability issues caused by a fall or the unsightliness of scratched or gouged chairs,” Armstrong warns. “Long-term care providers should seek out nonwood chairs that closely resemble wooden seating. Look for a durable chair that will provide stability for the resident on sitting and standing, which will instill confidence that the chair will not break or tip.”

Advancements in polymer technology have yielded stronger materials in furniture, making it last longer while offering a wider range of styles, Zusman says.

“As designers saw a need to continue the beautiful design in all areas of a facility, they began to understand the benefits of polymer-based furniture options,” he says. 

“It seemed to them that wood could not withstand hard use or frequent cleanings. Metal is too cold and ergonomically stiff for the time spent sitting in a resident room, or lounge and lobby areas, for long periods of time.

“Designers found that durable, ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing furniture and seamless furniture design are equally important as residents move from one level of care to another. Hence the development of more diverse furniture options that suit the needs of a total campus.”

Another facet of toughness and durability is size, says Jacki Zumsteg, manager of design operations at Invacare Interior Design. The nation’s obesity epidemic includes seniors, and bariatric versions of standard chairs are now as commonplace as mobility- and bath-safety equipment, she says.

“We have seen more of a demand for products that have higher weight capacity,” Zumsteg acknowledges.

The choice of furnishings depends on which rooms they will serve, she notes. Furniture in rooms designed primarily for visitors could be standard-sized and don’t necessarily need heavy-duty construction or special features, she explains.

On the other hand, “When residents are the primary users, as opposed to visitors, we suggest seating products with clean-out or removable seat cushions for easy cleaning,” she says.

Cleaning hazards

Although furniture manufacturers are concentrating on making furnishings that are not institutional in nature, the fact remains that long-term care facilities’ furnishings are subjected to much heavier usage, cleaning, moving and general wear-and-tear than they would receive in an ordinary residence. 

Zumsteg notes the manufacturer’s challenge is to meet the critical triple-pronged criteria of aesthetics, stain resistance and durability.

“In a senior living environment, stain resistance and durability are important components so that the products will last and continue to look great for years to come,” she says. “Aesthetics is important for the marketing aspect of the buildings. When showing the property to prospective residents’ families, you want everything to look great.”

Even so, caustic cleaning elements such as disinfectants can pose a threat to furniture’s fabric, finish and function, Zumsteg says, adding that “we have responded by making our finishes resistant to withstand the harsh chemicals used to clean our products.”

Housekeeping can unintentionally damage furniture during cleaning sessions, Silguero says.

“Vacuum scuffs and cleaning solutions that are not wiped off completely are two of the most common threats,” he says. “As a result, we are introducing a collection of laminate furniture that will be better suited to resist denting and scratching because it’s not wood. The appearance will be that of wood, but the materials are comprised of laminate material.”

Geography matters

Where a facility is located can make a difference in what types of furnishings should be used. 

Certain materials that work well in the arid heat of an Arizona facility, or for a place in a high-altitude alpine climate, might not be suitable for the heat and humidity of New Orleans or Florida, Silguero points out.

“There are absolutely product designs that play better in certain geographies than others,” he says. “Although materials are mostly affected by humidity, they are not typically affected to the point of non-performance. For those in the northern states, for example, during the winter months, wood will swell. This is taken into consideration in the engineering of our products, which allow for wood to react to its environment while maintaining its structural integrity and functionality.”

Zumsteg agrees that location can make a difference for the styling of furniture, but adds that for the manufacturing of the furnishings, “they are typically designed for the normal range of temperatures.” n