CHEERS! Interior Design for Bars in Senior Living

collage of photos taken at bars Recently during focus groups at a senior living community, we were somewhat surprised when an elderly woman living in personal care pulled us aside to share her desire to have a designated space for happy hour so she could enjoy a drink before dinner. In retrospect, it probably should not have come as a surprise that someone would simply want to continue a cherished tradition she had enjoyed throughout her adult life. While health issues or medications can be an issue for some older adults, many are increasingly expecting appealing bar options in senior living. This upward trajectory is expected to continue as the Baby Boomers reach typical move-in ages.  A growing number of active adult and senior living communities are introducing sleek bars, cozy pubs or flexible lounge spaces to respond to the demand. Some communities are also incorporating specialty coffee and tea selections into their bars to provide something for everyone.

As with other areas of senior living, senior consumers expect distinctive experiences in spaces that do not compromise aesthetics or style.  Here’s what some of our interior designers had to say about this growing trend.

Patriot's Colony in Williamsburg, Virginia
For the stand-up bar at Patriot’s Colony in Williamsburg, Virginia, the foot rail provides a place for patrons to rest their feet and gives a clean, finished look.

Current Senior Living Trends

Liz Koch:  There is growing demand for bars spaces that feel like a true hospitality environment, while taking into consideration senior-friendly aspects such as counter heights and seating types.  A big difference from just a few years ago is that now you will find different types of seating, including varied styles of booths and high top options, where before it was pretty-much one-size-fits all.

Deb Kimmet:  A higher level of detailing and unique branding is definitely a trend we have been noticing.  Dining in senior living communities used to be fairly homogenous; now bars are just one of several distinctive venues being offered.  And for one community that space is a sports bar; in another the design is for more of a British pub style venue.

bar at Givens Estates Oxford Commons in Asheville, North Carolina
Flexibility was a design priority for this bar at Givens Estates Oxford Commons in Asheville, North Carolina.

Amy Kleinfelter:  Flexibility is a big part of bar design—making that space work harder for our clients so it’s not just active for a few hours of the day.  The flex bar at Givens Estates Oxford Commons is designed to be a café during the day, with a casual feel similar to a Starbucks or Panera type of dining venue. Coffee, pastries, sandwiches and salads will be served in an appealing market-style setting that works well with the community’s existing design style. Then, at some point in the late afternoon/early evening, it transitions to a typical bar setting. The lighting changes, wine and beer are served and the food is geared toward small plate/bar food.

Great Design is Always in the Details

bar at The Lutheran Village at Miller's Grant in Ellicott City, Maryland
The bar at The Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant in Ellicott City, Maryland illustrates the sunken bar concept so the bartender is at eye level of the seated patrons. The design features Baltimore Ravens purple.

Deb Kimmet:  The primary detail for a bar area is finding the right counter height for each community. A bar height of 42 inches is what you would typically find in a restaurant. While this provides an appealing hospitality aesthetic, the higher stools can be challenging for senior residents especially those with assistive devices.  Lowering the bar counter to 36 inches allows for hip height stools that are more comfortable and safe for all ages.

In some cases, we have dropped the bar height to 30 inches so that residents can sit comfortably and easily on table height chairs or stools—with backs.  In this approach we then sink the bar serving area so the bartender is at eye level with the patrons instead of towering over them.

Liz Koch:  I think it is important to keep the bar area open to the rest of the space.  It is frequently the focal point and also breathes life and energy into surrounding area. In many cases, we have incorporated a 36 inch high bar top, which is definitely senior friendly, but some clients don’t love the finished look of it, so it is important to offer that variety of seating around the bar so there is a little something for everyone. In addition, a special note for outdoor bars–it is important to use lighter material on surfaces that residents are touching since darker materials absorb heat and become too hot to touch in the sunlight.

bar planned for The Crescent at Oakleaf Village in Toledo, Ohio
The bar planned for The Crescent at Oakleaf Village in Toledo, Ohio, is open to the dining space and provides another option for individual diners.

Just Right Light

Liz Koch: I love using pendants over a bar area for an appealing sense of intimacy.  I tend to use pendants with softer light to create a cozy ambiance and rely on the recessed light fixtures to produce the needed light levels for comfort and safety. Even if decorative light fixtures are not utilized, the use of lighting is important to highlight accent areas using LED tape lighting, wall grazers or light panels to backlight products like translucent stone. Illuminating accent areas anchors the bar and brings focus to the space.

Deb Kimmet:  You’re definitely going to need more light for a bar in a senior living setting than what is typically found at a bar in your neighborhood.  As with most spaces, the key is layering the light to provide comfortable levels without glare, and also to allow for some variability throughout the day.

bar at Meadowood in Worcester, Pennsylvania
Illuminating the bar at Meadowood in Worcester, Pennsylvania, highlights the focal point of this casual venue.

Color & Material Options

Amy Kleinfelter: Many of our clients are looking for a timeless quality with clean lines and finishes that won’t feel dated in a few years.  Our goal is to create something that feels contemporary and unique without being over the top.  It’s also important to choose durable materials that can handle liquids and are going to age well.  No amount of style can make chipped laminate or stained flooring look good.

durable materials covering the outside of a bar Liz Koch: The client’s vision for the bar informs the colors and material selections.  Some clients want understated which allows for a softer color palette or a monochromatic approach that focuses on texture to provide visual interest. Others are looking for something a little more bold, so choosing vibrant or statement colors and using more contrast is the way to go in that scenario.

The thing I really love about bars is that they have so many different durable surfaces allowing for many finish opportunities each with its own personality and unique qualities.  Color and material has such an effect on the overall result for the space.  Using some rich colors, plush fabrics and brass accents can make a bar feel luxurious.  Lighter colors, bright lighting and greenery freshens a space and makes it feel more daytime appropriate. Industrial bars are trendy right now as well. These focus more on the use brick, concrete, wood and metals, and often have exposed ceilings.

exhibition kitchen at Givens Estates Oxford Commons in Asheville, North Carolina
The exhibition kitchen at Givens Estates Oxford Commons in Asheville, North Carolina, promotes interactions between chefs and diners.

Creating Unique Experiences

Amy Kleinfelter:  At Givens Estates Oxford Commons, a new dining venue is being introduced that includes a counter-height bar facing an exhibition kitchen, also called a French Cooking Suite. This bar will be a highly interactive social dining space where diners can observe the chef preparing dishes.  Counter-height stools were selected to allow residents to view the chefs at work.  The exhibition kitchen is meant to be the star of all dining venues in Oxford Commons. It will set Givens Estates apart from neighboring communities and provide a memorable dining experience.

outdoor bar at Willow Valley Communities
A unique feature in a senior living community, the outdoor bar at Willow Valley Communities highlights the rooftop venue.

Liz Koch:  Reflecting a big hospitality trend we see a lot right now, the outdoor bar at Willow Valley Communities is part of a rooftop venue.  It was important to create a three-dimensional aspect for this bar because the exterior setting limited opportunities for finishes and overhead lighting.  To create a welcoming aesthetic, we used dimensional tile on the front face of the bar and accented with under counter lighting to bring it to life.  We recessed the storage/display area so it would be protected from the elements and added a roller door to close it off when not in use.  Overhead lighting was added for practicality, but it also makes the bar feel inviting.

 Fig & Barrel Pub in York, Pennsylvania
The Fig & Barrel Pub in York, Pennsylvania features a contemporary industrial aesthetic that allows the impressive whiskey wall to take center stage.

Not Just for Seniors

 Fig & Barrel Pub bartender climbing a ladder to spirits Many of these trends and guidelines are not limited to senior living.  Distinctive brand appeal, universal accessibility and quality, durable finishes are important for bars in any hospitality setting. And just like senior living, mainstream hospitality venues are getting more creative with their non-alcoholic options.  Increasingly options like cold brewed coffee or healthy selections made with different types of tea or Kombucha appeal to a wider range of customers and allow for additional service hours.  From a design perspective, this translates to a need for more lighting options and a design palette that flexes easily between night and day.

Liz Koch, IIDA has six years of experience and recently earned National Council for Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) certification.  Her favorite cocktail is a Gin Rickey.

Deb Kimmet, IIDA, LEED AP, ID+C, has 22 years of experience and is a LEED Accredited Professional, Interior Design + Construction.  Her favorite drink is a Long Island Iced Tea.

Amy Kleinfleter, IIDA has 29 years of experience and is also a LEED Accredited Professional, Interior Design + Construction. Her favorite beverage is either a good Godiva Chocolate Martini or a Nutty Irishman.

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP (Chocolate Martini)