It was only when her mother was diagnosed with dementia that Claudia Salgado began to understand the nuances of designing living spaces for seniors and their families.
Already an award-winning architect, Salgado was inspired by her painful journey to also pursue a masters in dementia studies at the University of Sterling, so she could learn how to better support her own clients’ struggles. Her main takeaway? That dignity is perhaps the most integral component of interior design for seniors.
“I’m a firm believer that the identity and essence of the person is still there; they just happen to be living with a condition. The simple state of aging or dementia never gives us license to manipulate their senses,” says Salgado, who today oversees the design of Amica’s senior lifestyles residences across Canada.
As the company’s Vice-President of Design, she ensures buildings and spaces allow residents to not only age in place, but also maintain their abilities – while feeling welcomed and respected.
“This is their home, so we want it to look that way. While the idea of home might be different to me than to you or anyone else, we can say that it is generally equated to a sense of belonging. Most of our residents come from single (family) homes where they have lived for 40 years, so being suddenly thrust into a multi-unit housing environment can be the scariest move in their lives,” she says.
“We strive to create a familiar environment where they feel comfortable and safe . . . where scale is not overpowering, and where specific design interventions allow them to navigate freely without feeling like they are living in an institution.”
Providing opportunities for social engagement is a vital aspect of designing for senior living. Common social spaces such as bars, pizza kitchens, and multi-functional activity rooms allow residents to entertain visitors and enjoy their time together, while movie rooms, bistros and wellness spaces create a sense of community and keep people engaged.
Keeping those spaces bright and inviting is key to piquing curiosity from residents as they walk by, and it prevents feelings of isolation.
“When you walk down a corridor, if all you see are closed doors, you won’t be interested in finding out what’s beyond them. But by using screens that provide a limit to the space while allowing you to see beyond to what is happening – you would feel connected to that space and feel invited to use it,” Salgado says.
“One of the most beautiful results from living in a community is you can make new friends, suddenly feel like you can belong and relate to each other.”
Most people seek to grow older in ways that are more comfortable than what was offered to their parents, says Chad DeWitt, the founder of Oakland, Calif.-based FrameStudio.
The architecture and design firm specializes in designing homes that incorporate a more healthful and constructive aging-in-place experience. To DeWitt, that means incorporating physical challenges into the design to promote activity.
“I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to single-level homes; in fact, multi-level homes serve the important purpose of keeping us moving at any age,” he says.
“Look at the Italian grandmothers you see in Tuscan hill towns climbing steep, uneven streets as they go about their daily lives. This type of everyday exertion is good for us as we age.”
DeWitt continues that theme to the outdoors, such as designing landscapes that encourage spending more time outside and incorporating elements like cobblestones to help improve dexterity and balance. At the same time, he recognizes the limitations of decreased mobility and will feature aesthetically pleasing design elements in the bathroom that can also be easily grabbed. “Think rounded edges on sinks or towel bars that can serve their intended function and that can be easily accessed for support,” he says.
Other features that meet the unique needs of seniors could include lever handles that require minimum pressure to open doors, rather than knobs that need to be twisted; dishwasher drawers for easier loading and unloading; and kitchen counters built at heights that can accommodate a range of postures.
“Whenever possible, aging-in-place design should take into consideration the possibility of multigenerational living,” he adds.
“As we see with current demographics, many aging adults make the move to their children’s homes in their later years. We are currently designing homes for people in their forties that assume at least one parent will be living there as they age. This means designing for privacy as well as accessibility.”
Colours are another important part of the design puzzle for seniors. “Now more than ever, we have a sophisticated understanding of the way that colours affect the human brain,” says John Linden, a Los Angeles-based interior and furniture designer.
“For example, blue is a calming color that puts the brain at ease, which is great for elderly folks seeking peace and serenity, but it can also seem very cold at times. If you're designing senior living spaces in a cold climate, you should accent the clue with yellows and soft reds. This helps keep the space feeling warm, even during the coldest months of the year.”
Yellow and red are also the colours best visible to aging eyes or those who have macular degeneration, says Salgado. “Needing care doesn’t mean you can let go of the aesthetic. For seniors, both elements are equally important.”
Design rules for senior living
The most senior-friendly bathrooms feature grab bars to help residents as they undress and enough of a turning radius to allow for wheelchairs, walkers or support with bathing and grooming. For those who prefer additional support, a nurse call system with a pull cord can also be installed. Accessible toilets are built higher than average to help seniors maintain independence.
Temperature control for heating and cooling is important for seniors with unique needs and whose medications can make them feel overly warm or chilled.
Windows that are built lower can give seniors a view even when propped up in bed or in a chair.
Accurate vision is harder for aging eyes, which is why Amica suites provide appropriate lighting levels for reading, watching TV, doing crosswords, etc.
“We are very disciplined about our art selection,” says Amica’s Claudia Salgado. “We avoid abstracts in favour of graphic, realistic images that are meaningful and can evoke fond memories. For instance, in our Georgetown, Ont. residence, you will find a rural aesthetic, as open fields and barns are deeply meaningful to the residents. But in our White Rock, B.C. residence, a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean, we feature more marine tones and relevant flora and fauna in the artwork.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.