Senior Living Providers Plant Seeds and Watch Wellness, Sales Grow

Senior housing providers are working with designers and architects on a solution that’s literally outside the box: creating innovative outdoor spaces to help residents relax and heal, while also driving sales and staff satisfaction.

The benefits of memory care residents being more connected with nature are just starting to be measured, but the role gardens, green spaces and family areas play in senior living appears self-evident to many in the industry. As a result, outdoor spaces are becoming more elaborate and creative.

Oklahoma-based Senior Star and Chicago’s CCRC The Admiral are two of the operators who are pushing the envelope on green senior living, and both the companies and their residents are reaping the rewards.

The Garden is the Star

A study from the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine found that memory care residents who utilized community gardens found them beneficial in a few ways. Residents felt more relaxed and experienced general pleasure from spending time in the gardens, which also had some impact on keeping a normalized routine. Staff members and associates also have positive reactions from community gardens, the study showed, as they were able to better engage and stimulate residents.

Architects and designers are taking these findings into account when creating new spaces for senior housing providers.

“It’s across the board, there is tons of evidence and research that the more you can get outdoors and engage with nature, the better off you will be,” says Bryan Warne, director of landscape architecture with Pi Architects, a Texas-based architecture firm that designs within the senior housing space. “With memory care specifically, some studies show a slowing of the progression of dementia and some small improvements [from being] able to experience those outdoor spaces.”

Warne says it’s important for architects and senior housing providers to constantly be on the lookout for ways to integrate outdoor areas into their building designs and fit the cultural needs of residents.

Senior Star, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based senior housing management company that operates in six states, has undertaken an initiative to provide more outdoor areas with unique features for residents in memory care. Some of the innovations in its 1,500-square-foot garden at Senior Star at Wexford Place in Kansas City, Missouri, include a labyrinth design and a vintage car where residents can sit, feel the steering wheel, wash the vehicle and remember a time period from their past.

For a lot of the residents, the car can help stimulate memories and also provide a sense of normalcy. After noticing that more men were moving into the community, Senior Star decided to implement the vehicle as automotive repair and upkeep was a common hobby for many within this group.

“With dementia, it is important to meet the resident where they cognitively are in the moment,” says Letitia Jackson, vice president of corporate engagement at Senior Star. “If they are sitting in that car or if the person is cognitively in the world that is represented by that car, we want to go there with them. It’s safe because it’s a normal part of their life. If they get in a car today, that may seem foreign. If they’re able to get into our vintage car, they’re more relaxed.”

The labyrinth in the garden also helps families who may be faced with some challenges connecting with loved ones with dementia.

“Imagine a daughter who comes to visit her mother every day who does not recognize her, and they are struggling to connect,” Jackson says. “Rather than struggle with ‘what do we talk about, how do I get you to see that I’m your daughter because you don’t recognize me anymore’—there’s no need for that. What if the two of them went arm in arm to the labyrinth, released everything else and allowed that emotional connection to guide them. They could walk quietly around the labyrinth and connect emotionally and relax spiritually in that setting.”

These innovative designs are a big hit among residents and families, and Senior Star is planning to create similar elements in future developments, focusing on the age of their residents and the time periods they may remember best.

While not every senior housing provider can incorporate a vintage car, there are many ways architects think about engaging residents when creating and maximizing outdoor spaces.

“When designing those spaces, we have a lot more control over sense, whether it’s encouraging more birds to come in for that sound, or water and the touch of the different shrubs, the paving,” says Warne. “We have a much larger palate to be able to play with and encourage healing when we are outside.”

Making the Urban Jungle Green

One of the top challenges to building an innovative outdoor area in senior housing is not necessarily cost. For a lot of communities, it’s space and safety. Urban developments in particular have to deal with structural challenges and lack of space when creating gardens and outdoor elements for residents. While some residents move into a community situated in a major city for the urban surroundings and cultural aspects of a highly populated area, green spaces don’t have to get lost in the mix.


The Admiral at the Lake in Chicago, Illinois, is a 292-unit continuing care retirement community that is an affiliate of the Kendal Corporation and boasts as having the most green space of any urban senior housing community. Located on Chicago’s north side in Edgewater, The Admiral must adhere to the city’s building laws that require a certain portion of urban developments to have green roofs. The Admiral has gone above and beyond those requirements, in part because residents requested more space for gardening.

Wendy Schulenberg is the principal landscape architect at Daniel Weinbach & Partners, Ltd, and was the landscape architect for The Admiral. She notes that the project presented “an opportunity to create a vertical CCRC that makes the best use of the land.”

Her greatest challenge was figuring out a way to “maximize green space in a vertical way.” What she found, however, was that the resident population was very involved with these spaces, asking for more green areas. The Admiral turned every extra inch of available space into a green area, including the space between the building and its alleyway.


The numerous rooftop gardens and outdoor terraces are a big influence on residents, who have an enormous say in how the gardens function and look. They have even taken over some previously unused outdoor spaces for more gardening.

“In a lot of senior housing, the spaces aren’t used as much as we’d think, but it’s still important it’s there,” says Schulenberg. “It makes normal experiences that much better, and then we do have those who are really actively involved.”

The involvement of the seniors in the gardens has created a culture of “participation and collaboration,” says Glenn Brichacek, executive director of The Admiral. With a gardening group of about 20 members, residents pick and choose which plants are grown and do much of the gardening themselves, even growing their own fruits, vegetables and herbs that are used in the dining program.

“People who take advantage of these spaces don’t just live on the floor,” says Brichacek. “They look down on it and will tell us when to cut the grass. It’s part of their environment.”RDnKBAMMaQxvQCJO3UiOjyNIOV67Ci9Z33sB18ehtEo

While residents can have a big say in these areas, safety is also a challenge that senior housing providers need to consider. From the surface of the pavement to the height of plants and the shape of a pathway, senior living gardens have some special designs to fit the needs of residents.

“If a resident does go out, they need to be seen,” says Pi Architects’ Warne. “Even if we a raised plant, we will try to make it where we still have the view angle so a resident can be seen. That’s for the resident and the caretaker.”

Warne also notes that creating a space that is functional for seniors and staff means also weighing the safety challenges with the desire to escape into nature.

“We have to balance independence and privacy,” says Warne. “We use outdoor spaces to get away and relax and unwind, and residents want to do that, too. And we try to honor that. The challenge is providing that sense of privacy while still allowing staff to be there.”

Some innovative designs that are already incorporated into communities like The Admiral are walking paths that don’t end, which can help memory care residents feel more relaxed. Warne notes that it’s crucial to design around the resident and make other considerations such as adequate seating with proper arms for seniors to pull themselves up and with overhead designs that make it easier for eyes to adjust to different lighting.

“Memory care creates a whole new series of challenges and concerns,” says Warne. “One of the biggest is way finding. For us, it makes sense that the door you come out is the door you come in, but for some of these residents, it’s not quite that simple.”

Call of the Wild Drives Sales

From a sales standpoint, having an attractive outdoor space can make a huge difference. Marketing teams are embracing outdoor areas to hold events for prospective residents and family members.

While residents at The Admiral get to enjoy the fruits of their labor by contributing to the dining program from their gardens, the outdoor terraces have also played a big role in marketing. In fact, some residents at The Admiral say they made their move-in decision because of the rooftop gardens and extra green spaces.uM3O6624ALC__tGegsw9kqQNmfDATE9yo0A07z6Y_yo

One resident considered another Chicago-based community called The Clare, but ultimately chose The Admiral as her place of residence because she loved being outside and found the community to have more green space. The Clare is known for offering high-end senior living in the heart of downtown Chicago, and Janet Holabird said she loved the community. However, she ultimately decided to move into The Admiral because of their rooftop gardens and extra green spaces.

When designers approach these spaces, they are also keeping in mind the marketing effect.

“If you’re going to spend money on the landscape it needs to be a in space that makes sense,” says Greg Hunteman, president of Pi Architects. “From a marketing perspective, we want to stage how someone enters the site and building and give a great palate for the marketing person to work from.”

The greatest consideration is how residents will use the space and what impact it will have on their lives at a community, but outdoor areas can become a source of pride that is also a natural selling point.

“It certainly does have a positive impact in sales,” Jackson says. “It helps us show the family how we can maintain the traditions and routines with their loved ones, but also the ability for their loved one to be safe but not feel confined.”

Written by Amy Baxter