What Do Seniors Want In A Retirement Community?

The continuing care retirement model is still the most popular senior living model in the U.S., but Baby Boomers have different ideas about where and how they want to age.

By Sara O. Marberry, EDAC

From luxury living to affordable housing and dementia care, senior living serves a broad and diverse population. Today’s seniors are living longer, often with chronic conditions. Many want to age in place and remain physically active, but at some point may need caregiving help. Making the transition from a single family home to a senior living residence or community is one of the biggest choices they’ll make in their lifetime.

For many years, there was very little change happening in the senior living industry. The Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) model was first introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s but didn’t experience significant growth until the 1960s. While the CCRC has evolved in the past 100 years, it is still the most popular senior living model in this country. But Baby Boomers have different ideas about where and how they want to age.

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Many seniors are coming from homes that are more transitional in their design approach and are attracted to this in a senior living community. Upscale communities continue to take a resort/hospitality approach in dining and common areas. Project: Williamsburg Uptown Seniors Living, Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Interior Design: Newcombe Design Associates. (Photo: David Whittaker)

The Green House Project small house concept for frail elders and short-term rehab is perhaps the most revolutionary senior living model to emerge in the past 20 years. Characterized by small size, home layout, advanced staff training, and low staff ratio, there are 170 Green Homes in the U.S. today – including many for low-income seniors. Another promising concept is a senior living and learning community planned for the Purchase College campus in New York. A partnership with Life Care Services and Senior Care Development LLC, it will include 220 apartments and villas on the college’s 40-acre campus.

As owners and developers decide to build new or renovate existing facilities, there are several important trends to keep in mind. Each speaks to the power of design to attract residents and help them to be happy and healthy in their new home.

Defining Home

As senior living continues to evolve, there is an increasing emphasis on creating places that are less institutional and feel like home. This is not new, but focusing on defining what home means to different senior populations and translating that to design is key to a successful renovation of an existing facility or building a new one.

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Access to nature and the outdoors, something most everyone has in their homes, is important to today’s seniors. This memory care garden includes a covered patio with seating, planting stations, dining areas, walking paths, and gathering and seating areas. Project: Cypress Cove at HealthPark, Fort Meyers, FL Design: SFCS Architects and GMK Associates. (Photo: Alise O’Brien Photography)

For most people, possessions make a space feel like home and create an emotional connection. But how to integrate those possessions into a more compact senior living residence can be difficult. Some owners/operators are offering design services to help seniors move into their new place, assisting with the placement of furniture and artwork. Customization, with choices of colors, finishes, and materials can also provide a sense of control that is so important for many seniors, especially Baby Boomers.

According to research by LCS and Spellman Brady & Company, elements of home that resonate with people include fireplaces, intimate seating areas, live plants, windows, and high ceilings. Area rugs and wood floors have appeal, but might not always be the best choices due to concerns about tripping and slipping. A suitable flooring solution for seniors can be carpet, due to its inherent ability to add warmth to a space and provide greater traction than hard surface flooring.

Access to the outdoors, something most everyone has in their homes throughout their lives, is also essential. This also speaks to Biophilic Design, a growing trend in healthcare to connect people with nature.

Some seniors still prefer a traditional design aesthetic and some developers and owners continue to follow the resort/hospitality model, such as Williamsburg Uptown Seniors Living in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. But many are coming from homes that are more transitional in their design approach.

Design details also matter to seniors and their adult children who are looking for a senior living residence or community — particularly at the mid-to-high price range. Most of these prospects are design-savvy and well educated. They know what they like and what they don’t like in terms of décor, materials, color/pattern, lighting, flooring, and accessories. And many understand the basic principles of senior living design when it comes to contrast/color, slipping/falling, mobility, etc.

Connection To Community

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Harvest Grill is a fast-casual restaurant. The space features roll-up doors that open onto the Main Street and connect the outdoors to the inside. Rose Villa in Portland, OR. Myhre Group Architects. (Photo: Nathan Cox)

One of the most common complaints of people in senior living communities is isolation — from each other, from their extended families, and from the community at large.

Breaking down the isolation barrier is perhaps one of the biggest issues for senior living owners and operators. Emerging models include repurposing older properties that are more centrally located within communities, where senior living is just one component of the greater campus.

At Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, MI, events and activities, such as farmers’ markets, festivals, yoga, wine tasting, and art shows attract people of all ages. Artisan food venues, brew pubs, and specialty shops provide revenue to the owner/operator and help bring the community in.

Active seniors want pedestrian-friendly senior living communities such as Rose Villa in Portland, OR, which not only provide areas for physical exercise, but also venues that encourage social contact with others. Walking paths with places to sit and gather are becoming more common, as are outdoor gardens and landscaping.

Support For Staff

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Access to outdoor areas not only benefit residents, but staff as well. Being able to take a break and enjoy a breath of fresh air can relieve stress and help with employee retention. (Photo: J+J Flooring Group)

Day in and day out, staff is also part of a senior living community. They, too, need to feel supported and comfortable in their work environment, and be able to relieve stress when needed. The bottom line is if owners/operators take good care of their employees, they will take more pride in their work, which will reduce turnover and ultimately be better for residents.

Progressive owners and operators are looking at the Google model of staff break rooms, providing lounge seating, ping pong tables, full kitchens with free food, and sleep rooms. Some are even designating a “captain’s table” in the main kitchen, where staff eats together prior to serving residents.

Health And Safety In Senior Living

Design also plays a big role in promoting health and safety for seniors. Lighting and flooring are critical for mobility to prevent falls and minimize fatigue. They can also act as “cues” to seniors with dementia to help them find their way and reduce confusion.

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This bathroom, which is visible from the resident’s bed, features night lighting that helps residents find their way, helping to eliminate confusion and mitigate falls. Project: Cypress Cove at HealthPark, Fort Meyers, FL. Design: SFCS Architects and GMK Associates. (Photo: Alise O’Brien Photography)

For example, at Cypress Cove, a residence for people with dementia that opened recently in Fort Meyers, FL, resident rooms feature night lighting in the bathroom that is highly visible from the sitting and sleeping area.

Surface materials selection can also help decrease noise, which has been found to cause stress and impact health. Choosing sustainable, non-toxic materials not only helps with air quality within resident homes and rooms, but also promotes a healthier planet, which supports the health and well-being of people around the globe. This, too, has appeal for many socially conscious Baby Boomers and their adult children.

senior livingMarberry is a healthcare design knowledge expert, writer, blogger, and marketing consultant. Much of the content of this article came from J+J Flooring Group’s Senior Living Design Symposia, where senior living design experts have come together for the past three years to share ideas and discuss trends influencing the industry.


  1. I like what you said about finding senior apartments that help to decrease noise and stress. My mom has been telling me about how she can’t take care of her home anymore, and she wants to move into an apartment. I’ll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for finding the right one.

  2. For my senior living I want my own space where I can spent my retirement time in a peaceful space. This article is helpful in many ways as it shares many important aspects on retirement issues. Thanks for sharing this article.

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