Competing for the coming wave of baby boomers is serious business in senior living. As many are discovering, missing that first and only chance to make a great impression is mission critical.

The messages behind design

Designers sweat over the most seemingly trivial things. Working for clients in senior living care requires that because a lot is at stake, particularly in competitive markets.

It’s easy to understand why sourcing a particular piece of fine art or choosing black walnut over rosewood for the centerpiece coffee table in a commons area is so important.

To these designers, everything from the frames to fabrics is meant to convey a message.

It’s about creating “a positive ecosystem of spaces for residents, staff and visitors,” says Jim McLain, general manager of Construction Specialties.

For example, nature is a common thread in so many new types of senior living settings, achieved in large part through biophilic design. Those biophilic elements combine to evoke a myriad of emotional connections and positive messages, including hope, comfort, warmth, engagement, community, security, independence, active lifestyle and vibrancy. “Thoughtful, creative and alluring spaces that promote emotional connections with good vibes while encouraging both social interaction and strategic areas of retreat instill the notion that change can be positive, bringing forth excitement, empowerment and the confidence of an enriched and meaningful lifestyle,” McLain says.

Without diving too deeply into the lexicon of thoughtful and visionary designers, Dean Maddalena, founder and president of StudioSIX5 (a clever play off the customary retirement age) puts it this way: “We are seeing slightly rounded or eased furniture profiles, soft edges on millwork, and elegant metallics in lighting and design accents that feel modern and sleek, yet warm and inviting. We are also seeing a mixture of organic and softer shapes and simple linear lines with varying widths and depths and having modern, abstract and artful interpretations of natural elements. This design combination supports and promotes relaxation with an active and lively community culture.”

What the lay people see is artistic and refined and luxurious. What they feel is quality, durability and function, McLain adds. This isn’t the stuff for amateurs.

Put differently, “senior care providers are focused on enhancing the lifestyle of their residents while providing safe and healthy environments that contribute to that experience,” says Mark Huxta, director of sales-healthcare for Ecore.

Spend enough time with designers and one can begin to grasp just how these subtle messages – both overt and covert – can influence that oldest daughter’s tie-breaking opinion of where mom or dad’s money will be best spent.

Furnishings can convey such easily discernible messages as higher quality (which to many equates with expensive and rich) and more covert notions as durability (for those residents who are mobility challenged), says Melinda Avila-Torio, an interior designer for THW.

Still, there’s no substitute for the powerful messages conveyed by any elements seniors associate with home.

Nothing has conveyed that message more than the point at which “home” was replaced by the word “community” in describing senior living spaces, says Randy Schellenberg, president of ComforTek.

“The furniture profiles and feel of hospitality and warmth play a major role in the resident’s emotional well-being,” Avila-Torio adds. “The transition from home to a new community is never easy. The element of familiarity, comfortability and positive visual cues are integral to their ease of assimilating in their new surroundings.”

Teri Jablonski, senior living corporate account manager for Inpro Corp., agrees.

“It’s important for furniture and furnishings to be homelike, non-institutional and inviting products that represent; safety, durability, functionality and quality,” Jablonski says.

Key considerations

Here’s a quick look at two key considerations that come into play for ensuring that your community makes the best possible first impression.

Ergonomics. The coming big kahuna of baby boomers in assisted living will be full of robust and healthier-than-usual older adults who prefer to stay that way as long as possible. At the risk of overstatement, ergonomics matters more than ever. Maddalena considers it priority No. 1 when selecting furniture. “It doesn’t get much worse than a potential resident sitting in a chair they can’t get out of,” he says. “The construction of the pieces must be commercial grade because of the excessive wear and tear they receive. The same applies to the fabric and finishes.” Spatial considerations are another consideration, according to Paige Hudgins, an interior designer for THW. “Those in wheelchairs or walkers need to easily maneuver,” she adds.

Durability and cost. One keeps the other in check, says Deanna D’Addario Martinez, CID, IIDA, NCIDQ, principal at Design Implementation Group.

Sudden impact

Jablonski believes it’s the “homey, clean, calming and warm energy” created with the furniture and furnishings that impresses first-time visitors.

McLain asserts that an overall carefully designed and thoughtful environment that conveys “an authentic culture that promotes exploration and discovery and enriches experiences for all stages in life.” No doubt the following features of such an environment likely would leave most visitors quite impressed: wine bistro bars with artisan foods, delis, brew pubs, theaters, bowling alleys and specialty shops and salons as well as walking trails, greenhouses, yoga spaces, grilling and lounging areas, bocce courts and dog parks that encourage social interaction, active living and areas of retreat,” McLain says.

To McLain, the successfully designed senior living community leaves a lasting impression by facilitating emotional connections to the past, present and future. “It’s an artform, but when designed successfully, can appeal to a broad range of current and future residents,” he says.

Savvy owner-operators in highly competitive markets often go to great lengths to achieve it.

Some will borrow from high-end luxury hotels, Avila-Torio says.

The usual targets can be such elements as custom banquette seating, lighting or furniture. “For example, the community center may have a lobby where the ceiling height may be a two-story interior,” she says. “The furniture scale is critical in creating a special feel and wonder of the space.”

Meanwhile, Maddalena believes few things convey “high end” more than artwork, accessories and a few select pieces.

In designing a new independent living community — Allegro Dadeland in Miami — StudioSIX5 “sought to create a luxurious hospitality vibe” through a mix of contemporary and transitional elements, elaborate features and statement pieces, and a curated art collection. One particular piece was at the entry and concierge desk, which incorporated backlit panels placed in front of carefully places sconces.

McLain and Jablonski both are proponents of digitally printed wall coverings that can help create a biophilic design to bring large imagery into the space to create a connection to people, places and ownership branding within facilities all while protecting the building.

“Natural light can add a ‘wow’ factor,” says Chelsea Rolf, interior designer for Medline. “Not only do more windows allow more light to enter, it allows for easier wayfinding along corridors, reduced electricity usage for lighting that may otherwise be turned on during the day, and may even increase the mental and emotional state of the residents,” she adds.

A few words of caution

Avoid outdated motifs and themes, the experts say. Few things set off more silent alarms in a prospective resident’s head than a design effort that got carried away with an obvious fad that had an appeal that faded fast. (One example may be the southwestern motif of the mid-1980s.) “Trends change, so providing timeless pieces that appeal to the masses and can be pushed to the current trend through use of accessories such as pillows, cushions and throws is the way to go,” D’Addario Martinez advises. Adds Avila-Torio, “It becomes more important that the design team also have a sense of how long the proposed palette can carry the community in the upcoming years.”

Don’t get carried away. An overly themed senior living community become stale very quickly, says Joyce Raedel, an interior designer for THW. “It’s best to create good bones for the space, with architectural finishes that can stand the test of time, then built another layer of design, with some features that add an element of surprise and interest.”