If you could design the perfect retirement community, what would it look like? What kinds of amenities would you offer? How would you use technology to enhance safety and comfort? How would you support residents’ physical and mental wellness?
These are questions that the designers of tomorrow’s senior homes and retirement communities are thinking about right now.
The senior housing landscape is undergoing rapid and in-depth transformation for a variety of reasons, and innovators are taking the opportunity to imagine a whole new kind of housing solution for the older generations.
The senior housing revolution is being driven in part by anticipation of future needs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2030 will mark a major population milestone for the country. For the first time in U.S. history, older people will outnumber children. In fact, 1 in 5 residents will be retirement age.
Another factor that’s inspiring people to rethink the design of senior communities is our recent collective experience living through a pandemic. Sadly, Covid-19 exposed some serious vulnerabilities and shortcomings in traditional senior housing options.
These and other influences are giving rise to a world of new possibilities as experts come to the table with new ideas.
Technology Upgrades and Innovations
According to recent data, more than 40 percent of senior community facilities are more than 25 years old, meaning that they are outdated and lack technology that we now take for granted. The Covid-19 pandemic made this deficiency crystal clear as many senior residents experienced isolation due to a lack of the basic WiFi needed to connect them to family members via FaceTime and Zoom.
In addition to replacing ancient infrastructure to facilitate basic connectivity, senior homes and communities will likely incorporate a wide variety of technologies for safety and convenience. For example:
- Hands-free, voice-first technologies (like Amazon’s Alexa) can be especially helpful for those who have mobility issues. These kinds of digital tools can also help people easily keep track of important information, schedule activities, and set reminders for important events.
- Tele-health technologies offer virtual medical services that are much easier to access than in-office visits.
- Senior communities might also integrate their own on-demand transportation services, similar to Uber and Lyft, but catering exclusively to their residents.
- There could also be the inclusion of various safety-related technologies—from personal response systems to digital doorbells—that would be prudent in a senior housing environment.
Different Kinds of Living Spaces
Another big shift that’s building momentum in the industry is an overhaul of senior housing design. Traditional, dormitory style senior housing may very well go the way of the dinosaur in the not-too-distant future. From the overall closeness of all the units to the universally shared common areas, this type of housing, sadly, created an ideal environment for spreading Covid-19.
Looking ahead, designers are considering a range of new ideas from grouped bungalows to tiny houses. Some contemporary designs blend the older-style format with a small-is-beautiful approach that clusters units together into decentralized mini neighborhoods. Other designs focus on creating a more “home-like” feel with tiny houses that include all the amenities of a full house but on a smaller scale.
The tiny home craze that is most often associated with Millennials seeking a less tied-down life seems to be catching on with older generations. Several surveys have found that seniors make up a pretty large percentage of tiny home owners. In fact, a survey from The Tiny Life found that 2 out of every 5 tiny home owners are 50 or older!
And, tiny homes have a lot going for them – they provide increased autonomy, are economical to build and maintain, and can be customized in an almost endless variety of ways.
Greater Focus on Wellness
Historically, senior housing has been seen as something to avoid. It is often thought of as institutional and a last resort option to aging in place. But times are definitely changing. While the senior housing and retirement communities of tomorrow will continue to offer core services around basic care, they will also put a lot more focus on quality of life and general wellness.
Here are just a few of the features and strategies that might become mainstream:
Better Air Quality. The pandemic really highlighted the need for major improvements in how facilities manage air quality. Even older buildings have been retrofitted with air filtration and purification systems, and new designs will include these technologies by default.
Biophilic Design. Study after study has shown that being outside and communing with nature is good for our physical and emotional wellbeing, but senior housing options of the past rarely incorporated access to the outdoors.
Biophilic design reflects as Merriam-Webster puts it, “the human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature.” In a housing situation, this might involve the addition of more windows to bring in natural light, ornamental and vegetable gardens, proximity to wooded areas, and so forth. This design approach will also encourage the inclusion of more outdoor common areas that can be used for a variety of events and activities.
Pet-friendly Housing. Not too long ago, it was unheard of for seniors to bring pets to live with them in retirement housing. Today, pet-friendly options are not only becoming much more common, they often also boast extra amenities like walking trails, dog parks, and more for four-footed friends.
Upscale Dining. Say goodbye to the cafeteria-style food service, and say hello to restaurant-style dining options, on-property cafes, and even delivery. There will also be many more menu options to cater to culinary preferences as well as health issues and overall nutrition.
Cultural Connections. Birds of a feather flock together because they enjoy being in the company of others who enjoy the same things they do. More and more retirement communities are being designed around various affinities to give people with similar passions a place to call their own. Aegis Gardens in Fremont, California, for example is an Asian-inspired, culturally authentic retirement community. There are also multiple locations of the Jimmy Buffet-themed Latitude Margaritaville communities. And earlier this year, Disney announced plans to build a series of 55+ residential communities called Storyliving by Disney.
More Active Lifestyle Options
Sixty is the new forty, or so say some folks who are living much more active lifestyles for much longer. Retirement homes and other senior housing are pivoting to cater to more engaged residents with a variety of events, learning opportunities, and even travel.
From classes on painting, dancing, cooking, and tai chi to volunteer opportunities to social events like happy hour and seasonal celebrations, tomorrow’s retirement communities will help residents explore new interests, work toward new accomplishments, and find new channels for self expression. Access to such activities and groups is not only entertaining and enriching, it can help provide retirees with a new sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment, which is critical to long-term wellbeing and mental health.
A World of Possibilities
With so much of the United States population preparing to step into the next chapter of their lives, one thing is certain: senior housing facilities and retirement communities will need to step up their game in order to compete in an increasingly competitive market.
Today’s seniors want to live in places that will provide much more than just a roof over their heads and basic care. The good news is that there are designers and innovators out there who are ready to embrace reinvention and put their imagination to work creating the perfect housing solutions for modern seniors.