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The New Hospitality: Senior Living Communities

By David Ashen Principal and Founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive August 11, 2019

Two years ago, I was in Scottsdale for a project and was visiting with a good friend who lives there. She asked if I would stop by her mother's senior living community. I had heard for years about this place and was lectured by my friend on how I should be working in this category (but I was not sure I understood why).

Well, we drove up to what must be the most exclusive, if not most expensive, senior community in the area, and, when we walked in, I understood why. That upscale housing community felt like we had walked into the world of hospitality circa 1985, when luxury had one look and was only addressing one set of tastes.

Today's aging community will shortly be composed entirely of Baby Boomers, a population that came into adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s, decades some might argue were enlightened ages of freedom regarding race, sexuality, drugs and thought. This generation had many more choices and therefore was not boxed into what was expected of them. It was the end of the "Leave it to Beaver" age and the world of lifestyle and design was opening up and becoming more colorful. Boomers represent an enormous amount of wealth; are more active into their golden years; and are more educated then the generation before them. As they say, 70 is the new 50!

Is it no wonder that the old Ritz Carlton, circa 1990, is not where these folks want to retire to. Like many of us, they want choices that represent their range of interests and preferences, and ones that help them engage in a very active lifestyle.

The future is here and senior housing developers are keen on answering the need before them. What does that look like? New communities – primarily in the independent and assisted living categories – are looking to luxury lifestyle hotels as inspiration, as places that set the bar for where they would like to be. A revolution is underway and the cookie cutter idea of luxury is falling away to reveal properties that are more dynamic.

Location, Location, Location

The first lesson senior housing developers are picking up on is the mantra to keep it local. Being local allows developers to create a building exterior and interior that is more in step with the flavor of the local environment, since, for the most part, residents are coming in from the local community. Interpreting the local character of the region through materials, textures, art and other elements creates more of a sense of home and a connection with the familiar. In lifestyle hotels, we might dial this up a bunch to amplify a local story for the hotel guest.

For instance, in a project we recently finished in Salida, Colo., we renovated a Super 8 Motel into a little boutique hotel called the Loyal Duke. We emphasized a southwestern design theme in the materials, patterns and furnishings used in the lobby in order to give the guest a more "authentic" experience. If this was a senior community, we probably would have created more subtle references and a more neutral backdrop, while emphasizing the local via art, and utilizing mediums like photography to highlight the history or landmarks in the region. In senior living, we don't need to hit the residents over the head, but want to create relevant references that keep the "familiar" in place.

Get Physical

Fitness and recreation are central to well-designed hotels and, similarly, senior living facilities ought to have ample opportunities for residents to remain active well into their latter years. We are seeing trends in our hotel projects that are translating across to senior living. In the last number of years, many of our hotel projects have focused on creating larger and more elaborate fitness centers. In many instances we have filled in pools to create "mega gyms" that allow for more variety in cardio equipment, free weights and studios that host yoga and other classes.

Senior living is following the trend and, in our projects in Atlanta, Ga. and Yardley, Pa., we are carving out larger facilities that include studios for classes and more spa-like amenities. Equipment such as Peloton® bicycles are also finding their way into both categories of projects and help properties stay on-trend.

Stay Social, Get Followers

Social spaces bring flexibility and choice and are therefore key in planning new communities. Here's another area where lifestyle hotels have led the trend, defining how we think about public spaces. For instance, in the Freepoint Hotel in Cambridge, which our firm designed a couple of years back, we threw out the notion of pre-determined spaces. Out went the breakfast room, the bar and the lobby lounge! Instead, we created a series of contiguous spaces that could work together – or apart. A lounge flexes easily for breakfast and then into an informal meeting space; the line between inside and out is blurred by lounge spaces that bleed seamlessly between the two. An empty bar doesn't feel foreboding, as it is part of a larger more comfortable "living" space.

A property that I recently visited, The Chicago Athletic Association, has very successfully mixed it up in its lobby, encouraging social engagement, while still allowing work and play to intermingle seamlessly. It did this by creating a number of possibilities to occur through a clever mix of furnishings that fill a rather large space. Blending communal tables with lounge seating, cocktail tables and little places you can escape way to in the "corners". What might seem as a chaotic mix of seating allows for a very natural move from work to play.

In the new senior living project our firm is designing in Atlanta, we are thinking about the common spaces in similar ways. Spaces can flex from lounge to game room, then from theater to place of worship. These amenities add perceived value to the property and allow them to change with the times. In imagining success, we think about how public areas can flex from day to night, in the same way we have been thinking about hotel public spaces over the last few years.

Dine Around

Food and the experience created around it has been the center of hotel and restaurant designer's work over the last few years. In hotels such as Perry Lane, where our firm created the Emporium Market, there is a destination restaurant that happens to be in a hotel. This is a change of mindset: it's a fabulous restaurant that is in a hotel, but most definitely not simply a hotel restaurant. Each guest touchpoint is carefully crafted and curated.

This mentality is trickling down to how designers and developers are thinking about food and beverage in the senior living environment. Soon the formal dining room with a sea of white tablecloths, banquette style carpet and chairs and rubber chicken will be a thing of the past. The reality is that most communities are using the food and beverage program to distinguish themselves from their competitors and choice, quality and experience are playing a big role in how they stand apart.

In the Altanta Heartis project our firm is currently working on, we looking at creating theater through display kitchens. We are bringing about choice by programing markets bistros and poolside cafes into facilities. In addition to designing bar lounges that are social hubs, we are bringing to life stunning wine rooms that can be used for tastings or rented for private parties.

Meet the Future

I do believe that, just like the hotel industry has evolved to offer a huge array of brands that cater to almost every lifestyle and design preference, senior living will quickly follow. With the Boomers as the next wave to enter this category of housing, choice will be key. Already, with the success of Jimmy Buffett's partnership with a senior community developed to create Latitude Margaritaville (now with three developments underway), which is an active senior community, the development of Margaritaville assisted living communities can't be far behind. Soon to follow will be an array of lifestyle-focused communities which will have to adapt design to reflect the tastes of the folks that live there.

Unlike hotel design, where we are concerned with what is current now, as we are on a constant seven-year refresh cycle, in senior living, we try to predict what the trends will be in 10 years, when the next generation of residents will have settled in. As we think – and design – into the future, it's exciting to imagine the many options that will allow people of all ages to live their fullest, most stylish lives.

After all, if you wouldn't spend your early years surrounded by plain vanilla options, or want that when you travel out of town, why would you want to live out your years there?