Not only can a well-executed dining redesign pay big dividends from a resident and staff satisfaction perspective, it also can be a major marketing boon for facilities looking to get a leg up on the competition. While transitioning from dated, uninspired dining facilities to more modern and universally appealing spaces may seem like a daunting—and costly—endeavor, experts stress that even facilities with meager budgets can pack a powerful punch by incorporating a few key design elements into their dining spaces.
“You can spend a lot or you can spend a little, and you can get good results with either, as long as [facilities] have a desire to bring in more residential features and give residents a place where they can truly dine, not just eat,” says Judith Sisler Johnston, president of Sisler Johnston Interior Design, Jacksonville, FL. “Good dining designs are much more resident-centric, and I'm delighted to see more senior living [operators] embracing that approach.”
Smaller is better
Whether facilities are renovating their existing dining areas or building new ones from scratch, the most prominent trend seems to be a shift away from expansive, cafeteria-like dining halls that seat large numbers of residents. Instead, facilities are opting for cozier, more defined spaces that capture the look and feel of a residential dining room or kitchen, or a more intimate restaurant.
For the Sarah Neuman Center for Healthcare and Rehabilitation, a Jewish Home LifeCare community in Mamaroneck, NY, getting there meant decentralizing dining to prevent 90 residents from having to share just one kitchen and two dining rooms. The facility built kitchens on all floors, working closely with architects, designers and staff to create functional, non-institutional dining spaces.
Eat-in kitchens with high-end furnishings—including granite countertops, chandeliers, draperies and quality upholstery—now take center stage. Meals are still prepared and cooked in the main kitchen, but they are then transported on steam tables to each floor's own kitchen space.
“We knew we needed to get rid of the tray line,” says administrator Rita Morgan, adding that the steam table approach, which stimulates the senses of sight and smell, also has had a positive and somewhat unexpected impact on residents' appetites (predictable weight loss has declined since they were introduced, she said). At the same time, the new dining set-up allows for faster service and greater dining flexibility. Hot meals are served on china to residents seated at linen-dressed tables, and because each floor has its own stocked kitchen, residents can be easily served seconds, without long delays.
“Before, we'd have to call down to the kitchen if we needed something and we'd have to wait for it to be delivered. Now access is right there,” Morgan explains. “And if a resident doesn't like the entrée being served or ordered the roast beef, but now wants a sandwich, that's something that can be easily accommodated.”
Staff and residents' families are also being factored into the resident-centric dining equation. Although dining areas are becoming more scaled down, many facilities are offering additional tables and chairs, as well as private, adjoining dining rooms that accommodate larger gatherings – a plus for birthday parties or other family or facility functions.
“Residents want to have their families around and they want to see their grandchildren, so it's important to encourage that interaction by getting rid of anything that might deter people from visiting,” says Joan Kaufman, ASID, president of Interior Planning and Design Inc., Naperville, IL. She explained that separate, private dining sections with French doors that can be closed off so kids can run around without disturbing other residents is one design with universal appeal.
Residents also want their dining areas to feel connected to adjoining living spaces, just as if they were in their previous homes, notes architect Joyce Lenhardt of Lenhardt Lolli & Rodgers Architects.
“Even skilled nursing is moving to the household model,” she says, adding that one of her projects featured six smaller dining areas and adjoined a common lining room space to allow residents to socialize before and after meals, as opposed to having them gather in hallways.
For new construction and full-renovation communities with big budgets and a lot of available space, dining areas can be dramatically designed to capture the flavor of many different moods and dining styles—from formal or themed restaurant-inspired spaces to more casual bistros and bakeries, and even 24-hour cafés and “grab and go” markets. It's a trend that seems to be catching on in continuing care retirement communities, as well as in assisted living, sources say.
Aside from offering more traditional dining areas, ACTS Retirement-Life Communities is also incorporating “marketplace design,” which blends food and beverage service into living areas. Round-the-clock coffee shops and cafés, for example, create a casual gathering spot where people can read, play games or visit. Temperature-controlled cases let residents, staff and guests pick and pay for prepared items just as they would in a traditional deli.
The focus, according to Theresa Perry, ACTS' director of culinary and nutritional service, is to create different dining spaces that offer skilled or assisted living residents more options—and a place where they can dine, sit and socialize all day long. Some ACTS communities are now offering kitchens with breakfast bars where residents, including those in the memory care facility, can watch their made-to-order food being prepared. Theme-based bistros that simulate outdoor cafés (a New Orleans-inspired one, for example, features balconies and wrought iron railings) are also being added to the mix.
Although many design experts are cautious of overly themed designs that can appear hokey if approached with a heavy hand, some designs can have surprisingly positive results. For architect Bruce Hurowitz, principal and managing partner for Merlino Design Partnership Inc., a Gulph Mills, PA-based firm that specializes in the senior living market, one of his most successful projects was a boardwalk café at Seashore Gardens Living Center in Atlantic City. The design resonated so well with residents, staff, families and visitors, he says, that skilled nursing and assisted living residents, along with families and staff, regularly mingle in the space.
When the community, which had been nestled along the famed Atlantic City boardwalk, chose to build a new facility inland, the decision was made to recreate the setting. With the help of a muralist and a skilled design team, Seashore Gardens built an indoor café that appeared to place residents on an actual boardwalk, alongside a 1940s-era pier.
“We picked a nostalgic time period, and in front of the mural of the pier we placed a real boardwalk pipe rail to give dimension and something for residents to lean against and hold on to,” says Hurowitz, noting that streetlights and benches also were added to further convey the theme. “What makes something like this work is taking a step back and creating something meaningful for the people who live there. What works in one community won't necessarily work in another.”
He describes another newly completed project in a New Hampshire community that incorporated salvaged brick and wooden beams from the city's 100-year-old mill and tied it together with “history walls” and iconic imagery.
It's in the details
Even facilities with more restrictive budgets can cost effectively convert their large, outdated dining rooms into cozier, more inviting spaces. Experts agree that success lies in the details.
Large, single-room dining areas can be instantly transformed by constructing simple pony walls or incorporating double-sided fireplaces. Introducing ambient lighting, thoughtful artwork and decorative pieces, and warmer color palettes on walls and furnishings (yellows, reds and oranges have been shown to enhance appetites) can also have a profound impact on the space.
And don't underestimate the power of a good view.
“Windowed walls that overlook or open up to a courtyard or golf course can create a terrific focal point,” stresses designer Cheryl Rowley of Beverly Hills, CA-based Cheryl Rowley Design Inc.
Lenhardt, who was challenged with transforming a building from the 1970s with low ceilings and tight spaces, worked to keep the contemporary feel, as opposed to fighting against it. She opened up the confined space and added flat cherry paneling on the dining room walls, along with a dry stack stone fireplace as a focal point.
“I felt that the people who lived here had a strong connection to the building, so I didn't want to completely change it. The look is still streamlined, but warm,” Lenhardt notes.
If new flooring and seating are in the budget, facilities may want to consider wood-look plank vinyl flooring that can withstand regular cleaning and the abuse of heavy traffic, wheelchairs, walkers and serving carts. Eight-inch minimum baseboards and table-height chair rails are another sound dining area investment—and one often overlooked in facilities of the past, notes Mitch Green, associate principal of architecture and design firm RMJM Hillier, Princeton, NJ.
“Many manufacturers offer plank vinyl flooring and the quality can vary. My suggestion is to do a test run of a couple different products for about six months and see how it holds up before making the big investment,” he says. He recommends the same for seating. “You don't have to buy it all on the first day. Test-drive one or two and see what works best for residents and staff.”
Dining chairs with arms are ideal; they should fit easily under the table. And in Green's experience, two casters work better than four (or none at all), especially when used on hard surface flooring. Seats should be comfortable yet firm, and seat height should be considered for each population (he pointed out that Asian Americans, for example, tend to be shorter than European Americans and may require an inch or two shorter seat height).
Durable, stain-resistant upholstery is also widely available and can be found at a reasonable price.
And don't forget about tables. It's a critically important, yet relatively inexpensive, furnishing that is often an afterthought in many facilities, sources stressed. Kaufman suggests losing the laminate table and counter tops of the past with a wooden edge that can delaminate and catch debris.
Sisler Johnson likes spaces with a variety of table types and sizes to better meet different dining preferences. As a feature table, she prefers a glass-topped table that seats eight and is easy to clean. From there, she recommends smaller, 60-inch round tables for six, and also some two-person tables for a more private dining experience.
“Many residents can't hear very well, so it can be difficult for them to communicate if they're sitting at a large, 72-inch table,” she explains. “We need to be sensitive of the residents and their needs.”
It's a message that carries to every other aspect of dining design, as well, she points out.
“There's a lot to consider when designing or redesigning a dining space. Through the entire process, you should be asking ‘Will this meet the needs of the residents?' If there's any doubt, then keep looking. Big budget or small, it won't matter how much you spend if the end result doesn't work for the people who live there.”