3/21/2017 | Posted at 11:13 am

GGLO Senior Living Design Trends

Written By: Jim Morrison

Changing The Public’s Perception of Aging

The public’s perception of aging is always changing, causing forward-thinking providers and their designers to think ahead and plan how to accommodate new resident’s expectations to ensure that their communities remain competitive.

Innovation in senior living means that design has never been more important for creating better environments that acknowledge change and new expectations while providing quality care in comfortable, elegant, and safe living environments for seniors who covet choices in how they live their active and meaningful lives.

“We are stretching, always thinking about how to innovate,” says Jerry McDevitt, a principal at GGLO who has been designing creative senior living communities for almost two decades. “We are always reinventing our vision for senior living that looks beyond the stereotypes of the past and is centered on creating community. Design stimulates community – with high quality indoor and outdoor spaces offering new experiences day after day for the residents” McDevitt says.

The best senior living today offers amenities and services found in elegant boutique hotels with multiple dining venues, to state of the art fitness and activity areas. It connects with the outside world, creating meeting rooms, shops, restaurants, and other places to share with friends, families, and neighbors. The institutional or overly thematic homes of the past no longer meet the desires and needs of baby boomers looking to be part of a more vibrant and diverse community.

“What we design today is cool housing where seniors want to live,” he says. “Today’s senior is more active, social, and independent. They and their families are looking for holistic solutions that meet a wide variety of needs — physical, mental, intellectual, and cultural.”

The numbers help explain why. At the beginning of the last century, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. People often lived to 65 and beyond, but they were likely to be very frail.

Today, the average life expectancy at birth is 78, and it’s not uncommon to find that the average age of a resident moving into an Independent or Assisted Living community is in their mid-80s. The writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson calls those additional three decades of life expectancy, “Adulthood II.”

Baby Boomers, she notes, have no intention of aging in the same way or at the same pace as their grandparents. They have more expanded expectations, finding new ways to enjoy those important years.

To meet those changing desires, McDevitt and designers like GGLO’s Interior Design Principal Kimberly Frank are creating new interpretations of Independent and Assisted Living communities, most with Memory Care, and Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) also known now as Life-Plan Communities where residents can remain in their community as they require higher levels of care. These communities range from two to three-story campus style environments to high-rise urban residences offering a range of amenities open both to seniors as well as to the neighborhood.

McDevitt and Frank are designing for wellness, not illness. “Today’s seniors often maintain a healthier and more active lifestyle because of years of proper exercise, good medical care, and better nutrition,” McDevitt says. “They often still swim, paddle board, or kayak.

Today’s seniors have higher expectations about where they chose to live. They are moving into these communities later in life. They are often looking for fitness amenities as diverse as yoga and Pilates studios, lap pools, state of the art cardio machines, even video or virtual golf.

In creating new senior living communities in urban environments, GGLO strives to provide unique residential living options, with multiple dining and activities spaces, and comprehensive care with spa and wellness spaces. These are places where seniors can connect with other residents or spend time with guests in their coffee shops, small restaurants, party rooms or indoor/outdoor spaces designed for light and warmth.

Kimberly Frank is the Interior Design Principal
at GGLO. She has over 20 years of experience
and brings the unique perspective that the
interior environment should be created through
a holistic lens that goes beyond the five senses.

“You want to build camaraderie,” Frank says.

On a six-acre site at Sagewood at Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah, GGLO’s design team created distinct neighborhoods spanning three options — from Independent Living, Assisted Living, to Memory Care households for residents needing more personal care — all connected by landscaped courtyards and elegant amenity areas where people can experience unexpected meetings.

McDevitt says today’s senior living communities need to appeal not only to residents but also to their adult children. “We also pay attention to what the resident’s grandchildren want as well,” he says. “If a child comes to visit and they become reserved or uncomfortable and raise their shoulders up to their ears in the first five minutes, then want to go home because they have nothing fun to do, that’s usually a good indicator that the building wasn’t designed well.”

The large indoor pool, spa and fitness area, dining rooms, and the shared meeting rooms, for instance, are not only used by the residents, but also by the families and friends of the greater Daybreak community. A church group gathers in the shared family room, further integrating the seniors into the local community.

Residents and family members want a place to cook a holiday or birthday dinner and be able to watch a football game together on a 70-inch screen TV. They want game rooms that become social hubs, and outdoor spaces to walk or sit and enjoy the sunshine with friends. They want a cozy restaurant with food prepared by a chef, not something served from a steam table in a cafeteria.

“It’s another way to foster community,” Frank says. “Others from the neighborhood can come in and get a coffee. It starts to break down that old perception of a fortress.”

That break from the past is evident in the design for Thea Foss Waterway senior living in Tacoma, where GGLO designed a seven-story, urban waterfront project that features a prominent restaurant along the pedestrian esplanade that will be open to the public as well.

“Integrating seniors into the surrounding community is an important trend that is gaining momentum,” McDevitt says. “Locating communities in transit-oriented districts and walkable neighborhoods means seniors and their family members can get around more easily and share their lives with people of different generations. That old image of a gated, age-restricted senior housing development is a thing of the past.”

In senior living design, the small design choices are vital to creating the right feel. The color and placement of lighting, for instance, has been shown to affect the happiness and functioning of seniors. Good design mitigates trip and fall hazards. Furnishings should not only be ergonomically-designed for seniors, but they should also be stylish and comfortable. For the new generation of well-traveled seniors, they expect interior design and architectural details that are not only functional but aesthetically pleasing.

“This is a residence, not a hospital,” Frank says. “The materials we use to contribute to the aesthetic elements that contribute to that residential feel — from the lighting to the casework — are super important.”

McDevitt is a member of the Urban Land Institute’s Senior Housing Council, which shares best practices and ideas for developing senior housing. He says that over the years there’s been a dramatic change in the perspective of where the industry is headed. Senior living communities were once places set apart like sanitariums or that mansion on a hill, they are now more welcoming, not only to residents who come and go but also to their family and friends.

“There is a direct correlation between design that enhances the quality of life, and how it impacts people’s lives,” he adds, “We’re creating communities that improve a senior’s lifestyle. As senior living continues to transform, thanks to innovations by creative developers and designers and fueled by the expectations of newer residents, and their families, new trends are emerging.


A welcome alternative to the institutional multiple beds per room nursing home of the past is the “Green House” model, where a  small number of residents live together in a household setting and receive 24-hour care by highly trained caregivers.

This model, created by Dr. Bill Thomas in 2001, for seniors with higher acuity needs usually requiring skilled nursing care has been successfully incorporated into many senior living communities nationwide. It was originally intended to be a more humane alternative for elderly residents who lack the resources of 24-hour professional home care, where the only other option at the time was the institutional nursing home.

The Green House model has become a preferred choice for many existing and new senior living communities and CCRCs. They provide small close knit households of 10-12 residents with private rooms in close proximity to centralized residential-scale living and dining rooms, a family style kitchen, wellness, staff area, and a shared outdoor courtyard space- per individual building. The Green House offers a higher ratio of skilled caregivers-to-residents than would be seen in the early skilled nursing facilities.


The “small-house” is a neighborhood–style household that provides elders the best communal aspects of a memory care community with the privacy and freedom of residential living. Above is an partial plan from Kisco’s Sagewood at Daybreak community.

The typical 14-20 unit “small-house” concept (larger in size and not proprietary as in the Greenhouse model), also includes private resident rooms with amenity and support spaces adjacent to an accessible outdoor garden, and is a preferred alternative to the long hallways and centralized amenities seen in many older Assisted Living or Memory Care communities. Whether designed as a single story freestanding structure or as a series of connected households, or even stacked in multi-story buildings, the small-house provides more personalized, number of residents per household, with close-by amenity and support spaces, with personalized caregivers. It’s another example of innovative design responding to new research.


The attraction of developing on urban sites is also coming into vogue.

Seniors, especially Boomers, want to stay active and engaged, so they’re opting for urban neighborhoods like GGLO’s Thea Foss Waterway where they are close to shops, restaurants, and the libraries and theaters located in downtown Tacoma.

Often senior living in urban areas is located near light rail or bus transit, providing another level of independence. Some are choosing senior living experiences close to universities where they can take advantage of the athletic and cultural offerings and even continue their education. The 325 residents of Kendal at Oberlin, for instance, are a short van ride from the Oberlin College campus where the Conservatory of Music holds 400 concerts a year. Another example of this is the Palo Alto Hyatt Vi Senior Living community, which is located approximately a half mile from the Stanford University Campus, a Continuing Care Retirement Community with 388 independent living units, 62 assisted living units, and 44 skilled nursing beds.


Sagewood at Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah offers a continuum of senior lifestyle options from Independent Living apartment homes to Assisted Living and Memory Care.

Senior residents are not interested in moving again after they have moved in a care facility. Many residents only want to move once into senior housing and may not be interested in a community that does not offer multiple levels of care. That’s making Continuing Care Retirement Communities — also known as Life Plan Communities – more popular. They are typically a not-for-profit entity requiring an up-front entry fee but offering a reduced monthly expense when compared to the ever-escalating monthly costs of private pay for-profit alternatives. The CCRC choice typically offers Independent and Assisted Living, Memory Care, and Skilled Nursing in a single location. Here, residents can receive specialized care in-community as they “age in place” without having to move out.


Memory Care has become an increasingly important component of senior living as many people live longer and begin to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia –the two most common forms of memory loss.

In early examples, providers and their designers set out to create outdoor and amenity spaces of a Memory Care community in the eclectic styles of the resident’s youth; adding period finishes and overly accessorizing the interiors with heavy drapery, antique furnishings, ruffled dolls, and stuffed animals – all intended to reduce anxiety and agitation and improve cognitive function of the residents. Memory Care of old was often located out of sight “in the back 40” of a larger community rather than being presented as an integrated component of a larger senior living community.

Today, there are improved alternatives to treating residents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The focus now is on the more specialized training for dementia-focused caregivers who work to help alleviate some of the physical and cognitive needs through individualized resident-centered care, involving more high-touch and personal interaction from trained staff. The key is introducing active daily programming and activities that are meaningful and purposeful to the residents. Telemedicine and newer technologies employed to aid in communicating with medical staff are being regularly used as well.

This enhanced model for future Memory Care communities requires supervised individualized care and life enrichment programming in well-designed indoor and outdoor environments for staff and residents to live and work in. These new environments, often more contemporary in nature, involve principles of Biophilic design and help encourage resident’s positive responses to natural daylight and views of living things in nature, producing patterns of less agitation and wandering, better sleep patterns, and improved overall behaviors. Successfully caring for residents in today’s Memory Care community is about providing a state of the art environment that allows specialized staff and caregivers to be better able to comfortably interact with residents.


The link between senior living and healthcare is likely to grow over the next 20 years.

Seniors may no longer want to spend a short-term rehabilitation period off-site in a medical setting. Short-term rehab with a spa-like setting incorporated into or located adjacent to their senior living community means they can remain in-place to recover from accidents such as a fall, or recover from required surgery or even elective surgeries like joint replacement. Occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech therapists on site help ensure that seniors won’t have to leave their friends for rehab in an outside facility.


Seniors today are more independent, well-traveled and have higher expectations for their future place of residence than ever before.

Seniors and their adult children, who are a big part of the decision-making process, become very involved in the selection process of where their parents will live.

Boomers and their families demand the kind of amenities that enhance their lives: fitness classes, yoga, Pilates, spas and massage rooms–to classes and organized entertainment trips. Some developers and their architects are beginning to pull out the creative stops.

Residents expect concierge-style services. They express their values through the choices they make whether it’s for casual or formal dining, emphasizing organic farm to table food, or a preference for sustainable environmentally-friendly design.

They are often looking for a more contemporary aesthetic, like a boutique hotel, not that of an institutional facility. It’s another example of an evolution in senior living away from the tired old assisted living and nursing home models of the past, and toward newer models that will provide an environment to help residents stay engaged and live meaningful lives.


Mother Nature and the Great Outdoors remain essential to physical and mental health and well-being.

The desire to return to nature is deeply hardwired in humans, and has led to the embrace of Biophilic design (The term was popularized by Harvard University conservationist E.O. Wilson to describe the extent to which humans have an inherent connection with nature) since they have been in the natural world for 99 percent of their history. Mother Nature and the Great Outdoors remain essential to physical and mental health and wellbeing.

How to stimulate the brain and the body through better design by utilizing the elements of nature is the challenge for clients and their designers.

The connections are as varied as a designer’s imagination, when spaces can augment cognitive function by creating a sense of novelty and complexity by, for instance, walking along a day-lit corridor and turning a corner to discover an unexpected view or access to an outdoor courtyard – an added experience that positively affects the brain.

Material choices may evoke similarly positive effects. Natural materials and colors are complex in ways that manufactured ones are not, reducing stress on the eye and bringing warmth to spaces.  Natural light and outdoor views, landscaped courtyards and open spaces have dramatic effects on the body, helping to regulate sleep cycles and encourage the production of serotonin, which balances mood and staves off depression.

Nature can also find its way into a resident’s day through views of adjacent parklands from on balconies or spaces for gardening and outdoor courtyards. Research shows it works.


The growing array of new technologies means people will be able to live more independently in senior housing.

Staff and caregivers already benefit from wireless devices that monitor vital signs, manage medications, and can even be alerted because of a fall. GPS can track seniors in memory care in a non-obtrusive way, keeping them safe. Apps can be set to remind seniors to take their medications. More active seniors are often savvy technology lovers who expect high speed wireless connectivity. They are the fastest growing demographic on social media, for instance.  Technology also will enable residents to get outside their living spaces, whether to take classes virtually or connect with family and friends through video chat.


Today’s seniors expect an array of wellness programs and the venues available to them.

Chair aerobics and “Richard Simmons”- like exercise classes are no longer enough. For this population, they demand yoga, Pilates, tai chi, healing gardens, massage services, biking, hiking, weight training, water-sports, and swimming. They look for fitness facilities with aquatic centers. But wellness doesn’t stop with an active body. They are looking to nourish the mind as well through meditation and education. Lifelong learning programs are springing up in senior living communities, sometimes in partnerships with local universities, everything from classes in the classics to classes about cooking.

It is typical of the active senior looking to engage body, mind and soul.


Jim Morrison is a freelance writer covering topics from business, the environment, travel and the arts. His stories have appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and many more.