When it comes to senior living furnishings and design, first impressions matter. Furniture, layout, lighting, flooring and other design elements that fall short can lead prospective customers to look elsewhere. Even worse, the comfort and safety of existing residents may suffer, along with employee satisfaction.

Marrying attractive, timeless and appropriate furnishings with durability, comfort and flexibility is essential in any senior living environment. Operators must serve residents of varying needs, and their furnishings should reflect that — and be able to continue meeting residents’ needs as they evolve, experts say.

“Furnishings set the tone and ambience of the facility. Residents and their loved ones are evaluating communities with great scrutiny and are deciding a path to take that most resembles a home that feels right to them,” says Don Toner Jr., sales manager at SpaceTables. Selecting a senior living community is a big decision, and families will be evaluating transitions, flooring and furnishings to ensure their loved ones will be living in a safe, comfortable environment.

Fortunately, more operators understand that the functional abilities of seniors are declining, and they are striving to create safe, functional communities that still appeal to the sense of “home” that residents and their loved ones seek. “An integral part of the process and facilitating more understanding are designers and builders that are focused on senior living communities. They are making great strides and creating an inclusive environment,” Toner notes.

Value purchasing

One all-too-common misstep operators make when evaluating and purchasing furnishings is basing the decision solely on cost and initial appearance instead of quality, performance and long-term value. 

Although price is important, Kevin Swanson, senior interior designer for Columbia Pacific Advisors, stresses “there are times in our industry where the saying, ‘You get what you pay for,’ is quite true,” and furnishings are a prime example.

Furnishings should be able to withstand everyday use, be easy to clean and care for, and be crafted in a way that is suitable for the environment in which it is being placed, says Chelsea Rolf, an interior designer for Medline Industries. 

Some operators make the mistake of buying directly from a retail store’s showroom. Although retail furnishings may be eye-catching, they seldom are commercial grade and likely will not feature proper moisture protection and durability needed in the senior living environment, says David Sullivan, senior living business manager at Flexsteel Industries. 

When it comes to furniture coverings, for example, he says a perfect scenario is having them wear out before the construction fails. Desirable manufacturers of commercial-grade furnishings also will stand behind their products with a proven track record and an above-average warranty period.

For high-performance liquid barrier protection and enhanced cleanability, Rolf recommends furnishings with healthcare-grade Crypton fabrics or vinyl. Crypton offers a built-in moisture barrier, and most are antimicrobial, which can help address incontinence issues and improve infection prevention efforts, she says.

For dining rooms, experts recommend resin-based or attractive metal furnishings over wood, because wheelchairs can scratch or otherwise damage wooden legs and frames. “There are some very nice resin-based or metal faux wood [furnishings] that have the essence of classic pieces but are more durable,” says Julia Bailey, NCIDQ, LEED GA, an interior designer for OZ Architecture’s senior living team in Colorado. 

Tables with adjustable-height bases also are available to more easily accommodate wheelchairs and scooters, Toner adds. Beyond that, Sullivan reminds that many senior care-specific furnishings offer a “clean-out design” that allows food crumbs, liquids and other debris to drop to the floor for easy cleanup. 

Instead of sharp corners, all tables used in senior living settings ideally will have bullnose edges for added safety, according to Bailey — and she says operators should pass on bench or banquet seating in memory care and some assisted living areas.

Balance the scales 

Comfort and safety should be viewed in tandem when selecting furnishings, and that begins with ensuring that pieces are dimensionally appropriate. A too-deep, too-high or too-soft chair, loveseat or sofa will be neither comfortable nor safe for older adults.

“Without having the proper dimensions and seat foam density, a resident would need assistance getting in and out of the seating, and that defeats the purpose of ideal upholstered furnishings,” notes Mike Mickey, sales manager for Flexsteel Industries.

Eighteen- to 21-inch seat height is preferred, and seating depth will vary according to furniture type, Bailey notes. Seat depth for lounge pieces in senior living environment typically will fall in the mid-20-inch range, whereas dining room seating will be shallower, around 18 to 20 inches.

Operators also should opt for furnishings with arms. Rolf recommends arms on seating that extend to the end of the seat, to serve as sturdy support when a resident takes a seat or rises from the seated position. 

Furnishings also should be flexible, ideally allowing them to serve a dual purpose to maximize a community’s existing space. Seating that can be moved easily from one area to another is ideal, and game tables that also can be used for casual dining, for example, can create a more usable and home-like space. When designing interiors, Bailey often uses 42-inch square tables that can be pushed together to create a larger table. 

Rolf recommends smaller seating groups over expansive lounge spaces that don’t allow for intimate gatherings or easy conversation among residents. Chairs and loveseats are preferred, because sofa length can make conversation more difficult — and residents rarely sit three to a seat, she reasons.

Café- and pub-style furnishings also can serve multiple purposes. Bailey likes them in lounge or reception areas because they are attractive and allow residents to play cards or visit with friends while they wait for loved ones or a ride. 

For communities with limited space, creative division of larger common areas also can encourage greater resident use, without the need to add on or permanently reconfigure larger rooms into smaller ones for specific purposes. “Nobody is a money tree, and nothing is as constant as change,” says Rich Mass, vice president of Screenflex. Moveable wall partitions can divide rooms quickly and easily, reduce noise and display materials, allowing operators to convert dining rooms, lounges and other common areas into different spaces. 

“Some residents may not want to play games, but may want to watch television, read or visit instead. Dividers that are sound-absorbing and create a physical [barrier between activities] makes spaces more comfortable and usable.” Vinyl versions in various colors are easy to clean, and an antimicrobial coating can be applied to fabric-covered dividers.  

Bright ideas in lighting

Lighting is another aspect of interior design that never should be overlooked, and it’s especially important in senior living environments because most residents have some degree of vision impairment. Greater lighting helps reduce falls and allows seniors to easily see flooring transitions, such as when moving from a hard surface to a carpeted area, Rolf explains. 

“Lights should not be glaring, but evenly distributed and ambient style. As seniors age, their lenses in their eyes change at a greater rate, and most colors become more muted or have a hint of yellow.” Evenly distributed light creates fewer shadows and improves visibility as residents move throughout the facility, she says. 

The right lighting also can improve residents’ sleep and wake cycles. Lighting science has shown that seniors exposed to the wrong type of light at the wrong time of day will not sleep as well as those exposed to circadian lighting solutions that broadcast blue-enriched light at proper levels and effectively remove almost all blue-enriched light at night, notes Jeffrey Spilfogel, director of business development for Healthe Lighting. Regulating sleep and wake cycles also can “aid in the uptake of medication [and] improve overall well-being. [Circadian lighting also may] decrease dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms and slow the onset of the disease.”