Humanity is currently experiencing the most significant health challenge to our existence in a century. As COVID-19 spreads and disproportionately affects older adults, the design of senior living communities is being impacted and will be for years to come. As architects, we can design environments that enable us to be smarter about how we live together. We can work alongside our health care workers to lead society into a new world where we are not afraid to live with the threat of infectious diseases and, at the same time, experience purposeful lives.
The foundation of senior living communities is to provide a setting for health, social connection, and safety – key premises that are being challenged by COVID-19. As of April 23, COVID-19 has claimed more than 10,000 lives in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living, across 23 U.S. states, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. That number is inclusive of residents and staff members. Since the mortality rate for seniors is so high, extra precautions are needed to safeguard this vulnerable demographic. The response to the virus is to require “social distancing” or quarantining. What does this look like?
Until a vaccine is available, some sort of physical quarantining is likely to be the new normal for senior living communities. However social distancing is not the answer. Human connection is key to the success of the aging services world.
And yet, even in the face of this pandemic, senior living is still viewed as a good option, especially for elders living alone due to the high level of services and engagement these communities provide. They eliminate the need for older adults to expose themselves to the virus by going to the pharmacy, the bank, or the grocery store. These communities have professionals who carry out the highest standards of cleanliness, maintain social activities, balance nutritional needs, and provide immediate health care.
In addition to severely impacting residents, the virus is also having profound effects on the operations of senior living communities. It has eroded several profit centers including health care and food service, the costs of which have risen alarmingly in the past two months. These cost increases are largely attributable to the mandatory purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE), the addition of computer systems to manage the health care for residents, and seniors taking more meals than previously provided by their communities.
Providers across the U.S. are being forced to radically alter their existing operations to manage this crisis, and as a result, KEPHART envisions that the design of senior living communities will be forever changed. Architects will be designing with these situations in mind. We’ve identified several key areas of focus, especially for new construction:
Settings for physical distancing incorporated into buildings:
Shift in focus from a resort hotel-style of design to home-style living:
The “cruise ship” model for senior living was already encountering rough waters prior to the pandemic. Now it is sinking. The new model for senior living will put less importance on expensive and often unused amenities, and more emphasis on providing a personalized experience; one that focuses on health, well being and purposeful living for the residents.
Improvements to the design of residential units:
Changes to food service:
Using technology to provide socialization and health care:
Since viruses like COVID-19 can be spread by a person’s hands, architects will specify a variety of appliances that are already in use:
Seniors working longer:
The virus has shown that seniors will fill their time with purposeful activities. Baby Boomers will choose to do consulting and other engaging work, rather than just retire outright. It will make sense to provide some office spaces in senior living communities, outside of the residences. These can be modeled after the popular work share setups where residents can reserve an office on an as-needed basis, with access to the internet, copiers and even a conference room.
Architects can play a significant role in providing the solutions to come out of this crisis into a much happier place. Our elders are at the most risk, so we should consider committing our resources and talents to honor them by providing innovative approaches for improving senior living environments.