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Modern senior-residential facilities are designed for varied activities, elegant accessibility and graceful aging — as well as care

With flexible options depending on if or how much assistance is needed, it is no wonder that more seniors are moving into contemporary senior communities long before requiring full-time care. (iStock)

We have all seen the movies; perhaps even been marred by our own experiences. Many baby boomers, and the generations that precede them, have a nightmarish image of nursing homes. And understandably so.

Nursing homes were poorly designed reactions (note: reactions, not solutions) that somehow became a paradigm across our society for those who were not trusted, or able, in one capacity or another, to be independent. Whether or not they were, for decades they have represented a place for the invalid and unwanted, not a place of care or comfort.

Owners and architects were largely responsible for this poor and perpetuated paradigm. While owners of these facilities controlled the money (which always affects design choices), architects controlled the aesthetics, and developing the program likely overlapped both parties.

However, owners and architects are also largely responsible for the remarkable, recent shift from the building of nursing homes to the building of senior care facilities, arguably one of the most dramatic changes in building typology in the industry’s history.

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As such, the purpose of this piece is not to persuade you that any kind of care facility is the right lifestyle choice for you or for someone aging entrusted — officially or unofficially — in your care. This piece instead aims to educate on the distinctions between nursing homes and senior care communities to avoid an associative, automatic stigmatization of both.

The differences go far beyond the smart marketing of a title rebranding. These kinds of communities are no longer reactionary: Senior care facilities are designed solutions to help people live comfortably with dignity and with as much assistance as needed. With interiors as lofty as an upscale apartment complex, these new buildings are designed for elegant accessibility and graceful aging.

Filled with nuances such as decorative chair-rail molding in the hallways (that doubles as a stabilizing handrail), or thematic corridor designs and art to aid in intuitive wayfinding (when memory may falter), the public and personal spaces are designed to be homey yet fully functional for an aging demographic. Details like niches at each apartment’s entrance grant opportunity for “front door” personalization — from family photos to seasonal decor — that also builds a memorable sense of place. Senior care facilities are filled with dual-purpose nuances like these.

Nuances are nice but, at times, can feel superficial. One of the greatest aspects of senior care facility design is the deliberate effort to create organic “intersection” spaces across the building that encourage personal interaction, which naturally builds a tighter community of residents. For instance, as an exterior example, pedestrian paths winding through year-round gardens may be designed to intersect with social spaces near the building for art classes or group exercise. (The nuance here is in the design of the sidewalks and paths: paved, intentionally flat and extra-wide to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs with ease.)

The best even incorporate volunteer programs with the surrounding community: not just community volunteers coming to these facilities but also residents volunteering from these facilities and going out into the community on a regular basis.

In fact, imagine your dream, all-inclusive apartment complex: good community, picturesque landscaping, social and billiards lounges, hair and nail salons, all-you-can-eat dining hall, and ice cream parlor. Mark Christenson, 34, aptly summarized his grandparents’ senior care community in Montana: “It’s like college for old people!” The most obvious difference being the generation of residents, and that in-home, a la carte medical help is available 24 hours a day if you need it.

With flexible options depending on whether or how much assistance is needed, it is no wonder that more seniors are voluntarily moving into communities like these long before requiring full-time care. Not only does it feel like home, but renting an apartment while still living independently allows an opportunity to build community with other retirees and take advantage of the amenities designed into the space.

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This new generation of care does come at a price, however. The biggest issue with these kinds of senior care facilities is their high — often prohibitively high — cost. The popularity of “long-term care” insurance plans has dramatically increased in recent years to address this issue, though that can still come at great expense. So most communities have staff dedicated to helping potential residents navigate finances, and they are well-versed in local and national financial assistance programs that can help.

Planning or reacting to growing older can take many forms in the realm of architecture, from adapting your own home to better accommodate aging-in-place, to moving into a senior care facility designed with comfort, care and community as its priorities, to various options in between. However, the new care facilities of today share very little in common with the nursing homes of the last century.

Whether relocation is the right move for you (or your family), this distinction can be important to help keep an open mind about the options available.

Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.