Building for Healthier Golden Years

What 2020 taught eldercare architecture

While 2020 may be a year most want to forget, the lessons learned will have lasting influences on the senior living industry and eldercare design for generations to come.

Wellness-based communities traditionally have focused on amenities that provide residents the ability to socialize and feel a sense of community. But what happens when social distancing is the mandate, and large communities can be not only incubators but super-spreaders of infection? That’s where architecture and design firms such as Studio+ in Tampa and Fort Myers come in.

Studio+ CEO Damon Romanello counts acute care hospitals, ambulatory care centers and senior living properties as the core market for his firm, which also operates in the California market.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Romanello says of lessons learned in 2020. “COVID has really affected the trend and acceleration of trends that were already in place.”

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that—for the first time— older adults will outnumber children in the U.S. by 2035. And with the ever-increasing cost of health care, there was already a growing focus on aging in place. Whether that means redesigning a person’s home with wider doorframes, slip-resistant floors and other handicap-accessible features or creating communities of wellness, the focus is avoiding heavy medical costs.

And with COVID, firms including Romanello’s are being forced to think outside the box and redefine the traditional idea of community. Romanello said his company is currently working on a project that features smaller, self-contained neighborhood pods with individual, dedicated outdoor spaces. The idea is to help self-segregate residents and trend toward smaller pockets of activity rather than large gathering spaces.

Sandra Troffer, Studio+ senior project manager and associate principal, said even before COVID, there was a trend toward smaller dining options, and placement of additional handwashing and sanitization stations are also becoming standard design features. Technology is a larger design component.

“The technology component is multi-faceted,” Romanello explains. “Technology has always been a trend, even in recent years, but more so now, certainly, with COVID.”

CARE BY DESIGN: With rising costs of health care, many older adults are choosing to age in place as architects are finding innovative ways to redesign their homes.

The ability for residents to use technology to connect to the outside world, whether it’s for socialization or more perfunctory uses such as ordering meals or opening doors, has taken on a larger design role. Touchless surfaces, which cut down on possible bacteria growth, are being heavily incorporated.

“We’re looking at things that really have elements of wellness to them, inherently,” Romanello says. “It doesn’t take away from sanitizing procedures, but it’s another level of restraint for the community to help stop the spread of bacteria.”

Troffer added that COVID may have helped simply speed up trends that were already emerging. With the pandemic, projects in Southwest Florida have slowed, but likely will pick up in the first and second quarters of 2021.

“The demand is still there, so we have operators and management companies who are still going to move forward with projects—although differently in terms of how they address the community needs,” Romanello says. “I don’t believe we need to be designing every single building to meet the next 100-year pandemic, but certainly having the right choices, the right options and the right locations makes sense regardless of pandemic or flu season.”

And the designs will be there to help residents age in place. Even during times of isolation, projects will center around fostering that sense of togetherness.

“I think it ebbs and flows, and I think it really depends on the owner-operator and what their mission to provide for the residents is,” Romanello says. “Certainly, there are larger-scale communities that cater to a different level of clientele than a smaller community, perhaps. But giving residents choices, no matter what cross-section you cut through in a community, that is probably one of the most prevailing design aspects—how to build in choices and flexibility to give people the option to do what they need to do, when they need it and how they want to do it.

Photos courtesy Studio+