The 'inn' crowd

Share this content:
The 'inn' crowd
The 'inn' crowd
It's no accident that a rosette- and medallion-patterned woven carpet, a rich mahogany armoire, a classic high-back chair upholstered in sand and blue hues, or  oil-rubbed doorknobs showed up in one of Maplewood Senior Living's five assisted living campuses in southwestern Connecticut.

It's also no secret that owner Greg Smith instructs his architects' interior designers to visit the well-appointed confines of popular hotels, restaurants, country clubs and shops before they sit down for their first consultation.

Smith and his designers sweat every conceivable detail to make residents feel like they haven't left home or their familiar and favorite neighborhood amenities when they transition to senior housing.

“Our facilities may be only a few miles apart, but none of them look a thing like the other,” says Smith, chairman and CEO of the Westport, CT-based company who spent many years earlier in his career owning and managing hotels.

“Our primary market for each center is one to three miles in diameter. We'll look at the architecture and design of that particular market and what our potential residents are accustomed to having or seeing in the design and architecture of their own homes.”

Across the country, providers are starting to pay as much attention to color combinations, paints, wall coverings and chair fabrics, as they are the locations of I-beams and parking lots when renovating or building senior housing. And the decisions they make are as influenced by local taste and preferences as they are about “evidence-based” or “green” criteria.

Welcome to the ‘home-tel'
Hospitality now dominates many interior design discussions when planning a senior living facility. And designers today are under pressure on multiple fronts.

“Baby boomers are the ones who are looking for places for their parents. But, they're also keeping an eye out at places for themselves,” says Jeanette Perlman, Maplewood's executive director. “They want that panache, that ability to say, ‘Mom lives there and look at what a beautiful place that is.' ”

There's more of an expectation among boomers that senior living is going to be “stylish, comfortable and sophisticated and if it's anything less, they will let you know,” adds Smith.

Because of this, theme-based designs may be on their way out, many stakeholders say. While once hugely popular in long-term care design, operators can run the risk that themes will quickly become dated or “come off as kitschy,” explains Meg Sutton, an interior designer with Direct Supply Aptura.

“Themes are going away,” added Lissa Rolenc, senior lead interior designer with Direct Supply Aptura. “Instead, we are finding communities bringing in more local history into the design.”

Many providers today are going for more of a timeless ambience.

“I prefer to use the term ‘resort feel' when thinking about long-term care,” says Christine Soto, ASID, CDT, LEED AP, associate vice president at Cannon Design. “If I have to move my parents to a place to live for the rest of their life, I would like them to move to a resort and not a ‘rest home'.”

More and more senior living facilities are taking on the feel of home with the ambience of a hotel, where inviting and high-quality interiors strive for a balanced blend of familiarity and comfort.

“This is especially true among transitional types of facilities as operators compete for more progressive consumers,” says Jason Schrader, regional project consultant for Direct Supply Aptura. “It's important to remember that the residents in these communities are from the area and they remember the heritage and history. Region and culture play a significant role in the selection of furnishings.”

Perlman has a decades-long career as an operator of nursing homes, assisted living and Alzheimer's facilities. She is a licensed nursing home administrator, teaches long-term care topics at New York University and is one of the few administrators to be first invited to consult with the Center for Health Design. To Perlman, the progressive work in long-term care furnishings isn't necessarily happening in nursing care centers.

“Many of them are about as homelike as a hospital,” she muses. “The exception is in rehab, which tends to be more socially driven and, thus, more sensitive to lifestyles because residents tend to be younger.”

That said, nursing homes require a different design approach than transitional types of settings, such as assisted living.

“Private rooms with accommodations for family members are popular in these settings,” says Sutton. “People want to have the feeling of a hotel with the assurance of high-quality medical care, so we create a slightly ‘acute care' look, versus a ‘long-term care home-like look,' in these environments.”

Independent and assisted living interior design tends to be “more hotel-like than hospital-like and clinical considerations are really more discreet,” Perlman adds.

Palettes and fabrics
Even as recently as 20 years ago, senior living providers likely thought little about whether their furnishings meshed well in a surrounding neighborhood. Today, designers implore operators to avoid drapes, wall coverings or furniture that could “date” a facility. Months of planning go into choosing among color palettes, fabric swatches and paint textures to ensure their surroundings have a somewhat evergreen appeal.

“Twenty years ago, we saw a lot of wild, big floral patterns in carpeting and fabrics, but today, we're seeing a lot of neutral tones with color accents,” says Perlman. Balance is key, she says.

“There is a shift in the focus to long-term care furnishings taking the style to a more clean-lined, hospitality focused look,” adds Jeanna Swiatkowski, a furnishing design consultant with Direct Supply Aptura. “Pieces that won't date the community are highly sought after.”

“Warm neutrals, taupe, gray in all shades with pops of color in upholstery and artwork are big right now,” says Sutton. “I've heard it called the ‘gallery palette.' Like an art gallery, the finishes are muted and the art, or furnishings in this case, stand out.”

Rolenc adds “timeless” colors such as gray, teal, rose, gold, coral, lime and golden creams to create a soothing mix of cool and warm.

Designers say many providers are moving toward color palettes based on nature. Wild patterns are out.

“Peach, robin's egg blue, turquoise, verdigris, butter, all of the colors from nature remain at the top of the list,” says Susan English of Assured Comfort. Others aim for a palette reminiscent of home. “The homelike soothing colors — soft blues, greens and terra cottas — are popular from the standpoint that they can create a more timeless look to a community,” adds Swiatkowski. “On the other hand, there are communities that want to push the envelope and are using more edgy colors — grays, oranges, lime greens and cobalt blues. Both are different schools of thought and are targeting two different markets.”

Fabrics, meanwhile, must blend well with a designer's palette, but function is the priority. Even popular “faux” fabrics must serve a specific purpose, Sutton said. “Rustic and reclaimed, or having the appearance of these qualities, is very hot right now in residential design and fashion design. Everyone wants something that looks lavish but performs in a commercial environment and doesn't cost too much,” she said.

Fire retardant fabrics also are ubiquitous, says Lou Gostino, vice president of Harbor Linen.

And seating upholstery must be beautiful but durable and practical, says Soto. Many fabrics are chosen for their antimicrobial properties and are treated with things such as silver ion, but Soto prefers vinyl.

“Because the seating needs to be protected from incontinent residents, we use vinyl on all of our seating,” she notes. “Vinyl manufacturers have created beautiful designs — so much so that it is becoming even more difficult to know if the material you are looking at is fabric or vinyl until you actually touch it. These new products do much to help create a warm, inviting space.”

Function aside, Soto says she tries to ensure that there is contrast between colors and patterns of upholstery and flooring to “help the ‘aging eye' distinguish between the floor and the seat of the chair.”

Performance needed
Nowhere does function trump style more than in furniture.

“As the baby boomers continue to join the ranks, eclectic, which includes modern and ‘retro,' allows for both style and comfort,” says English. “Seating and bedding are getting the serious eye for ergonomics, support and better mobility.”

“Furniture can't look frumpy and yet it has to be comfortable and functional,” Perlman says. Adds Soto, “When we talk to facilities about furniture options, we want them to understand that we are looking for well-constructed, durable furniture.” Cannon Design, for example, is starting to use thermofoil for its case goods finishes, which provide the users with a warm wood feel, while also offering them a more durable finish than plastic laminate or wood veneer.

And particular attention is paid to chairs that allow residents to sit and stand with relative ease.

“One of the trends we are currently seeing is the introduction of a platform rocker as the primary resident chair,” says Soto. With a stationary arm and base providing ease in ambulating, this type of chair still offers the user the opportunity to have some movement while they are sitting.” Choosing such important features in seating can sometimes pose a conundrum for designers, says Perlman. “One thing that challenges designers when looking at upscale furniture is the need to be sensitive to how individuals will be able to get up and down when sitting and standing,” she says.

That's not to say comfort isn't a high priority. “Adjustable beds continue to grow in overall demand in the industry,” says English. “Engineering and design have taken the ‘ugly' out of adjustable. Powder coating, remote controls and upholstered headboards have added a gentle feel for a more personalized bedroom.” While wingback chairs look charming, “they are rarely comfortable,” she adds. “Seating that follows the Scandinavian clean and totally ergonomic approach is much needed in an overly sedentary environment.”

Other popular items: Solar or roller shades create privacy, plus they are long-lasting and easy to clean, Gostino says. Also a favorite are bed throws, which add a splash of color and can be used as a bed scarf, and Velcro valances, which can easily be switched and cleaned and provide a warm, “homey” feeling, he says.

While melding with the local community is important, furnishing decisions also are influenced by other criteria such as diagnoses, environmental safety and evidence-based design.

For example, assisted living facilities designed specifically for memory-related populations must account for the impact the look of the interior space can have.

“Complex or varied designs, of course, can create confusion,” says Perlman. “Sometimes a space can look like a black hole or be frightening. Careful attention must be paid to using patterns and colors that are discreet.”

In other instances, patterns that scream for contrast are effective. In one of Maplewood's communities, apartments designed for Alzheimer's residents include a bathroom where the wall behind the tank is painted a noticeably different color than the other walls, making it easy to locate the toilet, she notes.

And in any healthcare facility these days, environmental safety is paramount when choosing fabrics, paints and carpeting containing little or no toxic substances. For example, Maplewood uses paints with no volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Designers should assist
Experts agree administrators should encourage their design teams to avoid a “cookie cutter” mentality.

Gostino says his company has learned listening to his customers and respecting their budgets are essential elements to success. That said, an administrator or executive director needs to allow designers to do what they do best.

“They must let the designer do their job,” he says. “No one wants a new decor with old problems.”

But interior designers shouldn't expect to rush or push their ideas past a facility decision maker.

“A good one will want to fiddle with a designer's ideas, and the designer has to be comfortable enough in their own skin to deal with that,” Perlman says. “This is how great plans come to fruition.”

Finally, long-term care owners and operators should not leave out two critical participant pools in furnishing design decisions: staff and residents.

After a community is built and the dust settles after a year, Smith always goes back to facility staff to get feedback.

“We ask the staff, ‘Are these furnishings working from a durability standpoint, from an ergonomics standpoint?' If the carpet is not doing what we expected it to do, we rip it out and start over.”

Perlman says owner/operators must talk with staff, asking questions such as, ‘What's the best height to place this cabinet?'”

“If employees really feel comfortable with their surroundings, they'll do a better job,” she says. “And the residents will feel more at home and feel like they're in harmony with the staff. We always say, ‘Remember who owns this place. The residents own it and you are their guests.'"