Wellness Priorities for Senior Living Communities

By Christine MacDonell, member of the ASID Aging in Place Council

The Baby Boom generation that has redefined every stage of their lives is certainly not going to retire in the same way as their parents did. Instead, they will be engaged, passionate and active. This next generation of seniors will custom-build their retirement years, embracing if not championing the philosophy of whole-person wellness. As these seniors transition to retirement community living, they will pursue a culture of wellness and place more pressure on providers to deliver an extensive wellness program. Senior living designers need to be prepared to meet the challenge with vigor. What might such a program look like, and what will it mean for designers of senior living environments?

Enter the National Whole-Person Wellness Survey (NWPWS), a pioneer effort to examine wellness programs in senior living communities. The data collected from the survey helps establish a baseline for senior living community wellness programs. This information is important for designers interested in commercial design of retirement or senior housing, as well as for those who have active senior clients who prefer to stay in their own homes and want more of a wellness approach to living.

Most senior communities have embraced the philosophy of whole-person wellness, even though they may not have the foundational components, such as good design of space, to fully support such a program. The NWPWS results indicate that the physical design of space has an impact on participation in wellness programs. Proximity and access to natural light is the most often-cited design feature in this regard. Scale of the space also matters. All wellness spaces are not the same; they need to be tailored to the function for which they are intended. An example of this from the survey was that participation in large group social activities was increased in spaces that had ceiling heights in the range of 8 to 10 feet.

The survey asked organizations to rate 15 different amenities according to how important they would be to residents 10 years from now. The following were ranked as “Very Important” (in order of those most frequently to least frequently ranked “Very Important”):

  • Group exercise room
  • Exercise/equipment room
  • Computer area
  • Activity/game room
  • Physical therapy/Occupational therapy
  • Beauty salon/barber
  • Class/meeting room
  • Parlor/lounge
  • Library
  • Wellness Center
  • Walking path
  • Casual dining room
  • Clinic
  • Indoor pool
  • Refreshment area
  • Whirlpool
  • Formal dining room
  • Locker rooms

When organizations were asked what they would be developing within the next two years, they responded with the following, from highest to lowest priority:

  • Spa treatment room
  • Refreshment area
  • Indoor pool
  • Locker rooms
  • Whirlpool
  • Therapy pool
  • Computer area
  • Group exercise room
  • Wellness center
  • Therapeutic gardens
  • Walking paths
  • Indoor track

Clearly, there is some discrepancy between what organizations see as immediate needs for their present clients and what they expect clients will want in 10 years. The challenge—and opportunity—for designers is to work with communities to bridge this gap by offering designs that address present needs while anticipating alterations or additions to meet future needs at the same time.

The jury is still out on how many seniors will opt to stay in their homes, with adaptations, or choose to move to senior living communities. As you work and design for those who are aging, it will be critical for you to pay attention to market and social trends that may influence these choices. Regardless of whatever setting seniors choose to live in, good design is one of the main success factors in their ability to maintain wellness and live happily and safely.

The National Whole-Person Wellness Survey (NWPWS) was supported by the Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging, Dorsky Parish Yue, and Ziegler Capital Markets. Principal investigator was Perry Edleman, Director of Outcomes Research, Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging. For a copy of the survey findings, please contact the Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging (www.Matherlifeways.com).

Christine MacDonnel is Managing Director, Medical Rehabilitation and International Aging Services/Medical Rehabilitation, Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).