The changing face of 'senior living'

With life expectancy continuing to rise, and evolving views on what life after retirement looks like, it’s no wonder that today’s aged-care residences are a far cry from those of twenty, or even ten, years ago.

In fact, terms like ‘aged-care residence’ and ‘retirement village’ are eschewed by residents and master-planners alike. The preferred phrase is ‘senior living’ - reflecting that while these residential enclaves may be designed for the over-65 set, they’re no longer a place to sit quietly out of the way and wait for the inevitable.

Older people increasingly want to live in active communities with a social heart. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.

Older people increasingly want to live in active communities with a social heart. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.

Landscape architect Emma Todd, a senior principal at Boffa Miskell, has master-planned a number of senior living communities as well as large-scale residential developments like Long Bay on Auckland’s North Shore. She says that developers are embracing a new way of thinking around what senior living looks like, and the underlying design principles.

“The three key drivers for master-planning a residential development are creating a community, establishing a place, and designing for use,” Emma says. “Those factors are always there – although how they are expressed and implemented vary from project to project.

“I’m particularly inspired by the Maori philosophies of Hononga (relationships), Whakapapa (place and heritage) and Hauora (well-being, complete health) and how we can translate these ideas into the design of senior living communities.”

In contrast to the inward focus that once defined retirement communities, connections to nature, and a variety of outdoor social spaces are now seen as essential to a pleasant environment and residents’ well-being. With play areas, gardens and walking paths, these spaces offer activities for all ages and abilities, and provide numerous options for residents and visitors alike.

In contrast to the inward focus that once defined retirement communities, connections to nature, and a variety of outdoor social spaces are now seen as essential to a pleasant environment and residents’ well-being. With play areas, gardens and walking paths, these spaces offer activities for all ages and abilities, and provide numerous options for residents and visitors alike.

Creating a community is more than simply building houses; it’s about building connections. To provide a physical framework in which a senior living community can thrive there should be a recognisable centre, and multiple spaces for residents to interact through a range of activities. Careful consideration will put in place a hierarchy of streets – from main through-routes to cul-de-sacs or lanes - that are legible and walkable, and that create a chain of connected spaces with a social heart. 

Shared gardens, a café, open spaces for special events like a farmers’ market, and on-site playgrounds are among the most sought-after amenities and are seen to have a positive impact in retaining intergenerational connections, while also providing a legible ‘village green’ social centre that encourages residents to get out and about. 

This social area with pergola, dining tables and barbeque is adjacent to a cutting garden and raised vegetable beds. A potting table and bird baths provide options for active and passive outdoor activities.

This social area with pergola, dining tables and barbeque is adjacent to a cutting garden and raised vegetable beds. A potting table and bird baths provide options for active and passive outdoor activities.

Interaction is increasingly recognised as essential to older peoples’ well-being. In the past, even the most sought-after senior living facilities often forgot the human need for socialisation in their design. With a focus on ‘preserving independence’, opportunities for communal experiences and encounters were a secondary consideration and unintentionally reduced.

“In the late 1980s and 90s, the emphasis was on individual units for independent living,” says landscape architect Sarah Collins. “The facilities were much more internally-focussed and tended to have a rather formal entrance and quite structured flower beds that were for looking at, rather than a community asset that residents are encouraged to be involved with.  There has been a transition from this lower density development to apartment style living, and there is a concurrent change to a communal landscape for activity.” 

A butterfly walk with two integrated natural playgrounds is a perfect spot for grandparents and grandchildren to spend time outdoors together. Provision of habitat for butterflies and bees has a positive environmental impact, too.

A butterfly walk with two integrated natural playgrounds is a perfect spot for grandparents and grandchildren to spend time outdoors together. Provision of habitat for butterflies and bees has a positive environmental impact, too.

A partner at Boffa Miskell, Collins says the Elizabeth Knox Home and Hospital, a facility that caters to seniors with physical disabilities, is a prime example. Here, outdoor recreation areas, including a large vegetable and flower garden, have been made accessible for residents of all abilities. 

“Active is a relative description and might be better expressed as having access to, and moving within, the outdoor environment,” says Collin s. “This may be independently walking, being pushed in a wheelchair, or using an electric wheelchair.”

The facility hopes to install a path through the site to encourage and enable residents to move around outdoors. The planting associated with the path will be colourful, perfumed and hold interest for the residents, and by providing seating with backs and arm rests, residents can enjoy sitting out in the sun.

“An important factor is the opportunity to interact with neighbours,” says Collins. “Can a path run in to a nearby street pavement, where incidental ‘Good morning, beautiful day’ conversations can happen? Does an adjacent reserve provide the opportunity for residents to watch children’s sport or families having fun on a playground? Is it appropriate to make a direct link into that reserve space?”

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The idea of integration with the neighbourhood reflects the fact that most residents of senior living communities come from the local area and wish to retain access to these familiar surroundings, so the model of ‘retirement villages’ that are fully-fenced and isolated from the surrounding residential community is slowly changing. 

Some aged-care providers still insist on facilities with walls and gates, believing this provides a sense of security that residents want. However, working towards a mixed model where ‘openness’ and security concerns are balanced, and addressed through intuitive design and CPTED (crime prevention though environmental design) analysis during the concept and developed design process, is gaining traction.

CPTED strategies include the planting of trees and shrubs, the correct use of street lighting, and encouraging pedestrian traffic and social interaction. The desired outcome is to create an environment that is well-cared for and occupied by residents throughout the day. Studies have shown that the application of CPTED measures overwhelmingly reduces criminal activity by encouraging ‘shared ownership’ and ‘natural surveillance’ by residents.

Morne Hugo, a landscape architect based in Boffa Miskell’s Tauranga office, foresees this trend toward openness and connectivity gaining momentum as the youngest of the baby-boom generation, followed by GenX, become seniors.

“We’ll see increasingly flexible living options; so, although people may choose to down-size or simplify, it’s not the ‘retirement’ of years ago. The model is no longer to retire at 65 and change your way of living entirely – older people are choosing to stay in the workforce and a more ‘active ageing’ model is being adopted. Seniors have a lot to offer and are a real asset if they are kept involved in their family and community, rather than going to live in an isolated retirement village.”