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The Changing Senior Living Design Landscape

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Unless one has the foresight of Jules Verne, it is impossible to predict the future. One thing is certain, however, when it comes to senior living design: tomorrow’s design approaches will be significantly altered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As designers, it is our duty to seriously consider how the built environment can be in the forefront of infectious disease control and prevention. While acute care environmental designers have long been charged with attention to infection control, many long-term senior living designers have either not considered or have simply ignored elements of building design that can serve to protect one of our most vulnerable population segments from the introduction of disease into their congregate homes.

Why should we even think about adding design measures to congregate long-term senior living environments that diminish the chance of passing on a virus when such an approach would surely raise the cost of construction? If the answer to that question is not obvious, let’s look at the current situation involving the COVID-19 virus. The population segment for whom we are designing for is the most vulnerable for any infection and they are the segment that will have the most devastating reactions to their health. As a result of this current pandemic, almost all long-term senior living campuses have been locked down and visitors, including family members, have been barred from entry. Additionally, trips for residents to the outside community and commercial activities have been halted. These logical reactions to the pandemic only exacerbate the negative resident feelings of solitude, isolation and loneliness. Additionally, as any infection courses through a senior living environment, the staff become vulnerable to that infection and in turn may bring it to their own homes and families. Their absence from providing care to seniors can be devastating to the health of the senior community and to the relationships they have established with residents.

As designers, if we add to all our building programs the preparation for another pandemic, we will almost certainly have designed a senior living environment that will serve to protect the residents and staff from both major and more minor infectious outbreaks. This only makes practical sense and should be strongly advocated to our clients. COVID-19 has changed numerous things about living in the world and it is our duty to pivot, design and build for those changes.

Here are only a few design changes that will emerge to protect our senior residents, but there are many other ideas that will expose themselves as we consider more deeply our charge as designers of safe senior environments.

Certainly, none of us can predict the future, but we can prepare for what the future might present based on our past experiences. Hopefully when this pandemic subsides, we will not experience another, but being cognizant that infections and disease can easily spread within a senior living environment should inform our design decisions as we move forward.

Senior Living Expert Contributor