Many senior living providers are incorporating universal design into their communities—whether from the ground up, or as part of renovations and repositioning of existing properties. Largely they are saying goodbye to institutional and traditional “nursing home” elements.
The progression makes sense: It allows for communities to better adapt to changing wants and needs of residents who not only have generational preferences, but also rising acuity as they age.
But incorporating certain design features—even some that seem to be common-sense additions—is a rising challenge for designers and architects who specialize in senior living. Some have had success in working with local and state officials to allow for more flexible design, while for some features the “go-ahead” is still very much a work in progress.
“We have been in senior living for 20 years. We have seen some changes, but not enough in our opinion, in terms of movement of regulatory agencies as they come along for seniors,” says David Dillard, principal with D2 Architecture.
We sat down Dillard and Grant Warner principals with Dallas-based D2 Architecture to learn about some of the most coveted senior living designs today, as well as the challenges in bringing them into the mainstream.
Across all housing types, the kitchen has become one of the most used areas in the home.
Architects are doing everything they can to incorporate the open-style design known as a country kitchen into senior living communities, particularly neighborhood-style communities where residents can gather around a large kitchen island, or cook there with family and friends. But the feature is met with challenges depending on fire codes around the country.
That’s because concerns exist around commercial kitchen applications when it comes to fire safety. It has been a major hindrance, especially when the kitchen opens to a corridor.
Some state officials have come around to the kitchens meeting the spirit of the fire codes. One factor that has helped has been a secondary form of fire protection, which is better than even the code requires. This may be an independent remote device that allows a user to shut a kitchen device off by electronic means.
“The enemy is caretakers walking to a slit in the window and walking out with the plates of food,” Dillard says. “We really want to open things up, both in conventional dining [settings] as well as in the neighborhoods where it’s a country kitchen concept.”
Pull-Down Grab Bars
It’s a feature that may seem intuitive: pull-down grab bars help older people who have less mobility and strength.
“These are so much better [than the alternatives] for seniors to accommodate their needs,” Warner says. “But unlike country kitchens we have had less success with fold-down grab bars.”
Federal rules prevent most communities from including them because they do not cater to the needs of those who are wheelchair bound. In other words, they don’t work as well for those in wheelchairs, though they do work for those who simply need a little assistance in getting up out of a sitting position. The rules were initially set following the Vietnam War, when grab bars were designed largely for war veterans who were subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act.
D2 has found success in Georgia in helping officials to understand the need for these aids, but the movement has a long way to go in most states.
“Clients are surprised and often frustrated,” Warner says. “Innovation is a difficult game.”
Wireless Nurse Call Systems
Another seemingly innovative technology, wireless nurse call systems, is also a design feature not accepted by many state and local building authorities, serving as a point of frustration for those working to bring new and improved systems into senior living communities.
The main concern is that the systems could fail due to batteries dying, and that this could lead to safety problems with nurses and other care providers not being notified when they are needed.
Most jurisdictions still require hard wired systems, Warner explains.
“We understand this, but the technology has advanced rapidly in the last few years. Our hope is that states will start to reconsider this. In many cases, the new systems exceed code minimums [and provide features] the wired systems just can’t provide,” Warner says.
These wireless monitors can be located in and around residents’ units and can be moved. Under the hard wired systems, this flexibility is not possible.
Warner gives the example of a person who has experienced a stroke on his left side, but who lives in a unit where the wired call access is on the left side of his bed. Or, the example of someone who is prone to falls and can benefit from the flexibility of a wireless system.
Some states are more open to the new technology than others, Dillard says.
“I think they will get there sooner or later. States are in different bandwidths of acceptance,” he says.
Also on trend with residential design outside of senior living communities, today’s designers are hoping for approval to use “barn”-style doors in their new community designs.
These doors slide along a bar or frame that is suspended above the doorway to open and close on a track, rather than hinge-style doors that are most often found in senior living today.
The benefit: It allows for privacy without taking up space.
“In applications where a privacy lock isn’t important, the doors stay out of the way,” Warner says. This is of particular importance in memory supportive communities where a resident may need a cue to where the bathroom is located, especially during the night. With the barn door style, the door can remain open, rather than closed when it’s not in use.”
The biggest safety concern is that fingers and hands can get caught in the doors; however, architects say there are ways to slow the door to prevent this, or install pocket doors that also provide another level of safety.
And the doors are aesthetically fitting as well.
“These are used not just in senior living but in lofts, condos and apartments,” Warner says.
While some states and local jurisdictions are coming around to the new design features and will help senior living stay on the cutting edge of design, those who are moving forward in the space are hopeful that all parties can work together in the best interest of the residents who are moving into communities today—as well as in the future.
“Universal design is an integral part of aging in place,” Warner says. “People [shouldn’t] have to keep moving because their abilities change. IL is the new AL and we want to make sure these environments are customizable for residents, so that residents don’t have to keep moving.”
Pictured above: A county-style kitchen at Prestonwood Court in Plano, Texas
Written by Elizabeth Ecker