From Hospital to Hospitality: Interior Design for Senior Living

Interior design for senior living has changed significantly in the last several decades. While many people associate senior living with the sterile environments of the mid-century nursing home, the reality is that today’s senior living facilities are more closely linked with hospitality design than with hospital design.

Food Service and Dining

In particular, food service and dining design has shifted towards hospitality, providing a sense of activity and destination for residents. Food service functions are moving out of the kitchen and into the serving lines, fostering connections between the staff and the residents. These dynamic and interactive food service spaces are enhanced with unique ceiling forms, multi-level lighting, and a wide range of finish materials. In large dining areas, creative dividers, thoughtful furniture arrangements, and decorative lighting fixtures reduce the perceived scale. “Creating smaller spaces within a larger dining room helps to make the dining experience feel more intimate,” says Stacy Hollinger, IIDA, a partner at RLPS Architects. Less obvious in effective dining design is the attention to detail for floor transitions, chair dimensions and construction, and table sizes. Interior designer Deborah Kimmet, IIDA explains “When clients ask for a round table for eight, I respond by asking how the residents will reach the salt and pepper, or how will they converse with the person across the table? It’s just not practical in a senior environment.” She recommends that dining tables be forty two inches square, providing enough space for comfortable dining, yet not so much that residents can’t connect with others during their meal.

Residences that Feel Like Home

While common spaces have shifted towards hospitality, residence design remain strongly linked to the feeling of ‘home.’ Maintaining a sense of ownership is key when designing senior living residences. “Bringing the outdoors in and applying the design concept of ‘neighborhoods’ has been very successful for residents in our communities,” says Hollinger. At Bridgewater Retirement Community in Bridgewater, Virginia, each skilled nursing household was designed to have a unique appearance. Using colorful exterior siding and stained wood doors, the design emulates an entrance to a house – providing residents the comfort and sense of ownership associated with ‘home.’

Keeping it Personal

Personalization is another important design consideration when designing senior residences. “Whether it be a memory box or hanging space outside of a resident entrance, or shelving within a rehab room, it’s important to let residents personalize their space,” Kimmet notes. Within the skilled care residences at Samaritan Summit Village in Watertown, New York, window seats with open shelves enable residents to personalize their room. The window seats also provide residents with an outdoor connection, something critical both for senior and healing environments. On a larger scale, each households at Bridgewater Retirement Community has a distinctive decorative style selected by the residents living there and staff members working in that household. For example, one of the households reflects the “green thumbs” of its inhabitants with lots of plants thriving inside and on the household’s screened porch. The finishes, furniture, and textiles within skilled care residences are often soft, neutral tones, proving a timeless design. Far removed from the hospital-style nursing homes of the past, today’s senior living residents have never felt more at home.

Jessie Santini, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C is an interior designer at RLPS Architects / RLPS Interiors, with 13 years of commercial experience. The firm is a national leader in the senior living interior design industry with experience working in 35 states throughout the U.S. Celebrating its 30-year anniversary in 2017, RLPS Interiors has a staff of 15 designers located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.