3 questions to ask when designing for social connection

How comfortable are residents who live in your community? Feeling comfortable and having a sense of belonging help determine how well residents adapt to life there and whether they wish to stay. By blending form and function, you can achieve the most welcoming and secure of senior living communities. One of the ways to achieve this goal is to design for community.

Oftentimes, moving into a senior living community is not the resident’s first choice. Regardless of how accepting the resident is at the beginning, in many communities, residents will comment, “This place feels so big.” That perception affects the resident’s feelings of security and being comfortable in the community.

The following are three questions to consider when you are planning a new project or evaluating an existing space.

1. Does it feel like home?

Communities put a lot of thought into the physical security of their residents. It is equally important, however, to consider and plan for their emotional security, too.

Transitioning to senior living often means leaving a home of many years. Whether that home is the house and neighborhood someone has lived in for decades or a more recent arrangement where a parent had moved in with adult children, it means leaving familiar people and surroundings for the unknown. This type of transition can be quite an adjustment for anyone, at any stage of life, but for seniors who are already experiencing physical and cognitive changes, feeling emotionally disconnected makes it even more difficult.

One solution that works well is to use a design language that creates a sense of neighborhood. It means bringing in visual elements that make the space feel smaller and less intimidating.

Just as in a typical community, having a sequence of different-sized spaces will help residents transition from their private living quarters to the shared areas and back again. Likewise, designing for this kind of scale actually encourages residents to function as if they were in a neighborhood. They can develop ways to navigate; for example, “At the mailbox, I turn right.” Landmarks add to the sense of security.

There certainly is a range in how institutional facilities can seem. Few people enjoy the feeling of living in a hospital or even in a hotel. Keep this in mind when choosing furnishings and décor. A variety of options have a residential scale and style that also meet the commercial requirements for durability and code compliance.

2. What are you doing to foster community connection?

This doesn’t just mean having more offerings on the activities list. How the spaces look and feel in terms of scale and familiarity can make a huge difference in encouraging those who may be more introverted to join the group.

The growing trend of converting single family homes into small assisted living facilities for an average of six to eight residents further demonstrates the desire among seniors for connection and community. The same feeling also can be achieved in a much larger environment if it is planned and developed well, however.

I recently visited a community located in an urban setting, so outdoor space was very limited. Outdoors, the raised beds that were originally intended as part of the landscape design had unexpectedly become a community garden and gathering space because so many of the residents enjoyed spending time there. While chatting with one of the women, she enthusiastically said, “They really care about us here – it’s like we’re one big family.”

  As she continued, I got the impression that the residents felt understood and “heard,” which plays a big part in feeling comfortable and secure. Considering that the community contained 80 apartments, I was impressed.

3. Are you looking to the future?

A sense of community looks and feels very different from the generation that prefers the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin compared with the one that enjoys bingo and Golden Oldies. A senior living community built today will have a different demographic among its residents a decade from now. Plan yours in such a way that the spaces can be adapted easily to accommodate the needs and interests of those future residents. When considering whether a community is a good fit for their aging parents, it is common for adult children to ask themselves if they could imagine living there someday.

A design with the goal of being comforting and offering a sense of connection and security can make a facility a strong option from the very beginning. Prospective residents and their families may not even realize why your community “just feels right.” Newer residents can adapt more quickly because they easily learn to navigate from their own apartments to communal spaces. And isn’t community the heart of any good neighborhood?