3 trends shaping the future of senior living and care design

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Healthcare and the environments in which it is offered are being reimagined. With more 1,200 studies showing how such campus designs influence resident and patient healing, it’s important to keep an eye on what’s working and plan today to remain competitive in the future. And although such environments have long been typecast as, well, clinical, forward-thinking settings, including assisted living communities, nursing homes and hospitals, now are striving to create wellness centers that are not only comfortable and convenient for residents and patients but also offer more inviting experiences for visitors.

As a principal at EDSA, a planning, landscape architecture and urban design firm, my team and I have worked directly with care-focused organizations, real estate developers, medical professionals and consumers alike, garnering keen insights into the future-facing business of care and lasting effects of healing environments on constituents and communities. Knowingly, we are at a pivotal moment. With generational shifts and the differing needs and desires of the changing demographics, now is the time to stay in-the-know for what trends are shaping tomorrow.

Trend No. 1: Layering in sustainable materials, hospitality design

Care purveyors are thinking forward on design elements both practical and experiential. For instance, communities and facilities are being newly designed or responsibility renovated with sustainable programming and materials, such as semi-pervious paving, natural cross-ventilation, tree shading, rainwater harvesting, energy efficient lighting, waste diversion initiatives and a deep dive into the use of durable materials to reduce life cycle costs.

Meanwhile, developers continue to take cues from hospitality, employing design elements that are focused on comfort and creating a welcoming sense of place. Of course, senior living developers have been doing this for some time.

I vividly recall time spent working on a prominent cancer treatment center in North Carolina, where the main lobby was arrayed like a living room, with furniture more stylish than utilitarian and a flickering fireplace that kept the space cozy. The result? An inviting ambiance that felt more like a place to relax and unwind than worry over health or await your name being called for preventive care services.

Like fine hotels that make every guest feel like they belong, infusing hospitality design into care spaces can give residents and patients something to look forward to. Beyond that, however, they can pave a path for outreach through amenities that can be used for community gatherings. Such elements can make local residents of the greater community feel comfortable with the community or facility in their midst rather than perpetuate feelings of anxiety or stress.

It’s about integrating into the community and reducing the stigmatization that people feel in toward care-based settings.

With a new portrait of wellness campuses as communal places of compassion and connection, we can create a future where senior living and other healthcare and service settings are seen as beacons of hope, collaboration and healing for all.

Whatever their location, care settings are peculiar places for most people. Visiting communities and facilities in the first place can be extremely stressful, not just for the resident, prospective resident or patient, but for the accompanying family member or friend.

To tone things down and alleviate stress, landscape architects and designers are prioritizing “decompression” in the such spaces, with design elements such as healing gardens, water features, therapeutic landscapes and nature-inspired materials. Not only do those elements support the physical and emotional well-being of residents or patients, visitors and staff members; they also contribute to a more holistic and healing-centered approach to design and delivery.

A connection with the outdoors provides a sense of tranquility and promotes healing, as an abundance of research has shown. Something as simple as increased natural light, green walls or biophilic artwork can positively affect a person’s well being – and a visitor’s well-being, too.

Such connections can play out in imaginative ways, from giving people places in which to retreat to creating incredible communal open spaces such as rooftop terraces with flexibility for secluded gardens for patients to recuperate alone or with company.  

Trend No. 3: The decentralization of care

In senior living, the largest company is Brookdale Senior Living, which had 54,328 independent living, assisted living and memory care units across the United States as of Dec. 31, according to the recently released 2024 Largest 150 Providers Report from Argentum. 

The healthcare systems that senior living providers rely on — and sometimes organizationally are part of — are growing bigger as independent hospitals and small chains move to join larger organizations for financial security. The largest health system in United States, based in Nashville, TN, had 184 hospitals at year-end 2023, according to Becker’s Hospital Review, while the largest hospital, located in Orlando, FL, had a whopping 2,247 beds.

Although those statistics open opportunities for services, decision-making and resource management, the sheer size of such operations can be intimidating for those seeking care and services. For instance, in parts of North Carolina where I am based, many patrons of the urban healthcare campuses hail from rural communities, where things such as parking garages and multi-building complexes don’t exist. This can create a sense of discomfort before patients even access the premises.

In an effort to distribute healthcare resources more evenly, the industry is shifting toward a decentralized model. Rather than focusing solely on large, university-affiliated hospitals, major healthcare players are opting to establish smaller satellite facilities within mixed-use developments in suburban and secondary or tertiary communities. The benefits of familiarity from such a localized settings can go a long way in making people feel comfortable, with improved access, particularly in underserved areas. This approach acknowledges the diverse healthcare needs and contexts of different regions and promotes the development of sustainable, community-driven solutions aimed at enhancing overall health outcomes.

Michael Batts is a principal at EDSA, a Fort Lauderdale, FL-based planning, landscape architecture and urban design firm with additional offices in Baltimore; Dallas; Denver; New York; Orlando, FL; Raleigh, NC; and Shanghai.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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