Winning 'curb appeal'

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The moment a prospective resident walks into a community, he or she should be dazzled, experts advise.
The moment a prospective resident walks into a community, he or she should be dazzled, experts advise.

West View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Warwick, RI, is not one of the newer facilities dotting the New England landscape. But as seniors are fond of saying these days, age is just a number.

It's the long and winding private driveway to the front door that first grabs you. Open your car window on a sunny morning and the fresh flowers and newly mowed grass flanking the drive fill your senses with summer. Entering through the wide doors into the expansive sunlit corridor, you're immediately greeted warmly by a friendly nurse, aide, housekeeper or if you're lucky, administrator Hugh Hall, a legend in these parts. It matters not whether you're a family member or UPS driver.

Before arriving at the reception area, a large, brightly lit common area opens to your left. Beyond it a glass door ushers you to an elegant fine dining room. It's an impeccably maintained building.

“It has lovely, updated furniture. It's always bustling with visitors, and it's so clean, warm and inviting,” says one visitor. “Every week they order a flower arrangement, and it's the focal point of the room. It's very large and smells amazing.” When asked about her first impressions, the visitor simply says “happy.”

Perception is reality

As any nursing home newbie discovers nowadays, those brief introductory moments to a prospective home for Mom, Dad or other loved one are usually the moments that stick. So the old saying goes, “You only have one shot at making a first impression.” Making it count often can mean the difference between arranging a stay or landing on a list of “alternates.”

Not convinced? In a sweeping nursing home consumer study, the Department of Health and Human Services commissioned Rand Corp. to do a few years ago, researchers found that clients' selection priorities were location and quality care, in that order. There was also this eye-opener: “Consumers generally expressed a lack of knowledge about nursing homes, long-term care and technical quality issues. Often what they considered to be a high-quality facility was one that looked nice, smelled nice and had nice amenities, rather than one that provided good quality care.”

The HHS study affirms what Jim McLain, general manager of the Eldercare Interiors Division of Construction Specialties, says he has known all along. 

“For residents, appearance of the facility ranked only behind recommendations and direct experiences of family and friends as the reason they choose an eldercare facility,” he says. “For family members, cleanliness of the facility ranked ahead of recommendations from hospitals and physicians and even its perceived safety. For information intermediaries, appearance ranked ahead of the quality of care, safety record, meal services and perceived friendliness of staff members.”

Lobby, reception and common areas that are stale, institutional or dimly lit, therefore, will foul clients' opinions about the care and comfort their loved ones will experience. 

“It's a total sensory process that can make or break a new visitor to your center,” says Hall. Jamie Thorn, national sales manager of Forbo Flooring, says furnishings “set the tone,” and are not unlike curb appeal in residential real estate.

“As seniors make decisions about transitioning to a senior living community, they usually rely on family members, specifically the oldest daughter, to help with that decision,” adds Kwalu CEO Michael Zusman. “She is most impressed by areas that are updated, fresh and new. When a community has furniture that looks like new and is well maintained, the impression is one of caring. Otherwise, the daughter is left wondering how well they will care for Mom if they can't even take good care of their furniture.”

As Pat Copps, director of capital sales at Direct Supply, has remarked, “Don't underestimate the power of a fresh look and the impact it can have on your occupancy rates. Many of today's prospective family members who are looking for a place for their loved one to stay judge more the overall look and feel of the building than they do the level of care provided. It's critically important to stay up-to-date within your market.”

The ‘wow' factor

Experts say savvy owner-operators should not skimp when it comes to outfitting public areas. Designers know this, and every meticulous detail in a chair, couch or window treatment is not chosen by accident.

“Furniture can represent something familiar in an unfamiliar environment. It is a powerful tool on properties in helping residents feel at ease in new surroundings,” observes Anna England Chaney, lead contract designer at Flexsteel. “Perhaps it's just a piece that looks welcoming, or something that reminds them of home. Either way, the furniture choices on many properties are very intentional.”

Andrew Christmann, marketing manager for Hekman Contract, is quick to admit his company's designers are laser focused on decision makers. “The main audience we're appealing to are those making the placement decisions,” he says.

As Direct Supply design consultant Lauren Stewart notes, “Furnishings are one of the highest impact elements of any interior. We are able to communicate style and function through furniture frames and fabrics that can evoke any number of powerful emotions.”

Turn-offs and turn-ons

Trends in public area furnishings closely mirror consumer preferences, and there's been a seismic shift in them as the boomer tsunami sweeps into senior living.

Turn-offs include anything that's dated, threadbare or unkempt; crowded areas filled with mix-matched old and new items; shiny wallcoverings; and unpleasant smells. And — most importantly — anything that comes off as clinical or institutional. 

“Everyone is wanting to get away from the classic nursing home feel and look,” says Christmann, whose voice falters when he speaks of a loved one who's strongly resisting a move to a nursing home because of the “clinical stigma.”

Construction Specialties recently worked with one of the nation's largest eldercare providers to boost occupancy rates by improving appearances.

“We began looking at the front entrances and lobbies where preliminary assessments showed shabby throw-down carpets, dingy wall surfaces and dated lobby areas,” says McLain. “The walls in the lobbies and reception desks showed scratches in the surfaces, chipped corners and dated woodgrains reminiscent of panels used in basements 40 years ago.” 

Working with their designers and project managers, McLain's team developed a new design formulary to improve the attractiveness of the entrances and lobbies and create a warm, inviting first impression.

Poor flooring choices, ranging from cheap carpet to flimsy vinyl, are a common faux pas. McLain says dirty throw rugs that are dog-eared with wrinkles are not only dirt and moisture magnets and downright unpleasant, but can pose serious trip and fall hazards.  

In fact, carpeting of any kind can be a challenge in high-traffic areas. Thorn recommends broadloom carpeting because it dampens noise and is slip-resistant. Still, “carpet does not hold up as well in the senior care environment as it does in other commercial market applications,” he adds. “This may be due to a combination of factors, including high amounts of liquid spills, understaffing, improper cleaning techniques and roller traffic such as carts, wheelchairs and scooters.” Flooring options from faux wood in vinyl plank and ceramics are very popular today.

Carpeting turn-ons, meanwhile, include so much of what's appealing about the upscale hospitality industry. The operative term is “warm and inviting,” many experts say.

“Lobbies and reception spaces are high-impact spaces that can set the stage for a building's ‘story' — in aesthetics, model of care and resident lifestyles,” says Stewart, who sees trends shifting toward hospitality-style gathering spaces that incorporate cafés, lounge seating and even casual dining.

Zusman says that mid-century modern furniture “is the trend that appears to be turning up everywhere, in all markets,” for its highly functional features, uncluttered lines in orange, gray and bold blues.

England Chaney says compact upholstered chairs and low-back benches are becoming more popular in high traffic areas because they are comfortable and provide support.

“Comfortable, elegant and versatile” is how Kwalu's Zusman describes furnishing choices in common areas where residents and their guests gather for everything from large special events to intimate affairs. 

“These rooms are being used for large celebratory meals, classes and group activities like movie watching and playing games,” Zusman adds. “Designers are supplying many and varied types of seating for common areas, including lounge chairs, recliners and benches. Crafting rooms are making way for TV/movie rooms with theater seating that includes storable ottomans and attached tables.”

Of course, furnishings that are antimicrobial, easily cleanable and durable are in high demand. Christmann said his company's “lift and clean” line, for example, reflects the trend for its ability to allow housekeeping to pivot seat cushions away from chair backs to easily clean and remove debris.

Not for amateurs

Armchair quarterbacks are ubiquitous and it seems that most people think they “know” how to furnish “common” areas. But when it comes to furnishing the more public areas of a facility, it's best to let the experts call the plays. When Stewart encounters a community saddled with a hodgepodge of old and new styles, colors and fabrics and a limited budget to fix the faux pas, her design expertise kicks in. 

“We realize it can be a major undertaking to replace every piece in a community, so often, we'll phase replacement projects and work to ‘feather in' existing pieces during the transition,” she explains.

It all comes down to balancing form and function, Stewart says: “While design aesthetics are of high importance, they cannot come at the expense of functionality. In high-acuity environments there is a major emphasis on cleanability, long-term maintenance and ease of egress.”

When Hall embarked a few years back on freshening up his facility's common areas, he followed his own advice for not leaving decisions to his own personal tastes and design sense.

“I think we've tried to make our entrance clean and crisp and slightly elegant,” he says. “Our ‘waiting room' is also one of our living rooms. We engaged a designer to work with us to create a warm and cozy setting. Our residents and families frequent this room for more private visits and it also engages our visitors as they may wait for a tour or an appointment of some kind.”

Still, for all the impact they convey, fancy furnishings mean little without that warm and friendly greeting at the front door. Hall prides himself on nurturing a happy and engaged staff, which he likes to call “the hardwood beneath the veneer.”