The Human Side of Senior Living
Creating Vital Thriving Communities
I’ve been an architect designing senior housing for 20 years, but I developed a fresh perspective during the six years I spent helping my mother move several times as her care needs increased.
My sister and I visited many senior living facilities to find a good fit. Often, we made a quick judgment about whether or not to stay for the tour by watching residents and caregivers interact and trusting our gut. Was this truly a community or simply a place to warehouse people?
Many times, we left without taking the tour.
Those experiences only strengthened my focus and passion to create better options; to create thriving community through a collaborative, human-centered design approach. I’ve worked with developers, operators and residents to build innovative spaces for seniors in places as varied as Utah, California, Washington, and British Columbia.
At our firm, we have a new vision for senior living centered on creating community. We believe design stimulates community by creating spaces inside and outside that provide opportunities day after day for new experiences and shared memories that are forever for seniors, their family, and friends.
What we design isn’t senior housing. It’s cool, desirable, safe housing that seniors live in.
Our design focuses on integrating a collection of experiences that resonate contextually, culturally, therapeutically and personally with the residents. By focusing on meaningful experiences rather than structures, corridors and rooms, we are able to realize new and appropriate opportunities that define a community’s unique spirit and identity.
Close collaboration with clients is an essential part of our design process. Each time we dive into a project, we look for the essence — the story — that drives design and fulfills our shared vision.
We design our projects to make you feel like you’re entering a boutique hotel. They have interesting and attractive exterior features with elegant finishes and details. They are easy to navigate on the inside with pleasing public spaces. We create the sense of a welcoming home with a community of care, connection and individual integrity.
At The Patrician, a renovation of a community in La Jolla, California, we immersed ourselves in the community, talking with residents, staff members, and the owner, sampling their meals, and observing their activities to understand the culture and the key needs of the community.
We created two tranquil courtyards, one with cafe tables for outdoor dining, where residents can grow vegetable and herbs; and a highly used poolside garden. Residents now enter into a bright lobby with a fireplace where a chorus group meets regularly to sing around a piano played by a resident. A more open bistro with flexible hours has become a gathering place for parties and extended family meals. It hosts a weekly happy hour, heavily attended by residents and their adult children. Design creates community.
At Sagewood at Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah, on a six-acre site, we created neighborhoods spanning four options from independent living to households for residents needing more personal care connected by planted courtyards and common areas. Since the project was completed, the indoor pool, spa, dining room, salon, and the shared meeting house have been used not only by residents, but by their families and the greater Daybreak community. A senior neighbor drops by to use the pool. A church group gathers in the shared meeting room. That’s just what we wanted — multiple generations from within and without Sagewood — coming together. Community.
I was there one day when an extended family gathered in the family living room, talking and laughing while they were waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive. Young children were running around, even borrowing grandma’s walker. It wasn’t the kind of scene you’d expect at a typical senior home. But it was exactly the kind of joyous, impromptu community we create with our designs.
At Thea Foss Waterway senior living in Tacoma, we’ve designed a unique 7-story, urban, waterfront project. The building, expected to be completed in 2019, features a waterfront restaurant that will be open to the public as well as a public esplanade along the Foss Waterway. There will be lounges where a family of 20 can have a Thanksgiving dinner or gather to cook together and watch the big game on a 70-inch television. There will be a large common area, penthouse units, a SkyLounge and Bistro Cafe and a rooftop garden. Seniors today expect independence, choice and amenities like fine dining offered on flexible hours, pools, spas and pleasant outdoor spaces. They don’t want to be isolated behind walls. They want to be part of a vibrant and diverse community.
I’ve learned over many years that the subtle nuances of designing senior living involves more than hospitality and housing skills. They include the complex interplay of the client’s preferences and the needs of the residents. No one building fits all. Every client and every project is different.
Our vision and approach have earned validation through both professional recognition and economic success. Sagebrook at Daybreak earned the Best 55+ Community of the Year Award and the Best 55+ Independent Living Community from the National Association of Home Builders as well as a Gold Nugget Award of Merit for Best Senior Housing Community from Builder magazine and two AIA Merit Awards.
“Sagewood at Daybreak demonstrates how senior living can be seamlessly integrated into the community to connect all generations,” said Dennis Cunningham, chairman of NAHB’s awards. Sagewood saw a dramatic demand for leases after its opening in October 2015 and continues to operate at above industry occupancy rates.
While visiting communities looking for the right spot for my mother, I often observed poorly designed places and staff inefficiencies that led to unhappy residents. That’s a vision of senior housing past.
Our vision is of senior living future. It’s for active, engaged people who want to be part of a community. Design stimulates that community. Design creates thriving places where people go to live, places where they create and share new, energizing experiences.
Successful projects require not only deep design and technical expertise, but also an understanding of human needs and interests. They demand seeing and doing things in a new ways.
Jerry McDevitt is a Principal at GGLO, an integrated design firm committed to creating thriving communities across all of their markets including Senior Living, Housing, Mixed Use Development, Hospitality and Campus Environment.