For more than a decade, the catchphrase in long-term care furnishings was “home-like.”

Selling the appearance of a residential setting by mirroring home and hospitality trends was paramount.

While you’ll still find plenty of nods to current décor trends — hello, neutral grays and barn wood embellishment — there’s a new theme in both furniture and design.

Technology is driving product development, with skilled nursing facilities selecting innovative pieces that meet their residents’ needs, keep their employees safe and keep pace with the ever-evolving digital capabilities of consumer and home electronics.

“Ten years ago, most nursing home residents were on the verge of accepting technology,” says Brian Roth, vice president of marketing and sales for bed and chair maker Med-Mizer. “Now, every future generation is used to this playing a key part of their life, and we feel nursing homes and manufacturers will have to find out ways to incorporate this technology moving forward.”    

Sometimes, the technology is visible. Think signage; flat-screen TVs; and in-room, wall-mounted tablets or voice-activated lighting controls.

But just as often, the technological advances are embedded within products, whether that means improvements in mechanical operations; man-made, performance materials; or new, digital components such as built-in charging ports.

“A lot of the furniture now is powered [equipped with electrical ports], which we never saw before,” says Kristy Yang, senior interior designer with Direct Supply Aptura. “That makes it more accessible to residents who want to bring their iPad into a common space, and it’s appealing and drawing visitors and families to common spaces, too.”

The kinds of innovation now tucked into everyday pieces clearly influence both function and appearance.

One major trend over the last decade has been the rise of wood replacements made using new manufacturing processes, such as thermoformed flooring surfaces that don’t require edge treatments. Gone are bulky thresholds. Better acoustics are an added bonus from the improvements.

“Alternate products to wood have taken a strong hold in our market,” says Jacki Zumsteg, director of interior design for Invacare. “Aluminum frame chairs and 3D laminate are all providing options to the wood product.”

Many of the changes have been driven by manufacturers, who are responding to providers’ requests for durable, lightweight materials that last and include some added advantage for their residents.

As an example, Yang’s fellow senior interior designer Amy Warden points to the new range of fabrics that give communities seemingly unending options for comfortable and beautiful seating.

“The feel of the fabric is so much nicer than it was 10 years ago,” she says. “Now, fabric barriers feel like treatments you would have at home.”

The trick is in nanotechnology coatings — many now use environmentally friendly solutions in response to clean air standards — that are backed up by durable interior materials.

 Today’s designs often accommodate a wide range of medical or social needs with looks that belie their healthcare roots.

Those barn doors so popular in design magazines and on HGTV? Turns out they brought a warm aesthetic and new function to a skilled nursing home client Yang recently worked with in Illinois.

Used for an in-room bathroom, the barn door slides behind furnishings when opened and requires no door frame. That means a wider, more accessible entrance for residents, especially those who use a wheelchair.

Changing needs

Major drivers for innovation include ergonomics that limit staff injuries, resident mobility and liability concerns.

 “When we can innovate and design solutions to improve outcomes and help nursing homes provide more effective and efficient care, it’s a win-win for everyone,” Roth says.

Med-Mizer looks to trends in hospitals and hospitality for inspiration, he adds. But the company also considers how payment models change and how the metrics used in nursing homes can drive needs. Merger and acquisition activity, especially as it relates to single companies providing a continuum of care, also motivates furniture makers to think differently.

The obesity epidemic and changing acuity levels also have been major factors over the last decade. At Med-Mizer, they led to the development of a new tilt-in-space chair.

“During our design phase, we spoke to countless clinicians who all complained about the current ergonomics — hand grip placement, caster/steering challenges, residents sliding down and to the side in the chairs,” Roth says.

Designers added new hand grips, dual-steering casters and a patent-pending Vback to keep residents and staff more comfortable when using the chair.

 Likewise, Comfort Tek created its Chair CADDIE after considering how a caregiver moves a seated person up to or away from a table — and how much damage regular chairs can do to expensive flooring.

The sled-like device was made to “specifically reduce the effort required on behalf of a caregiver when moving a mobility challenged person up to the table,” says president Randy Schellenberg. 

He says the device can help stabilize chairs that have been damaged by tugging and twisting, extending life. The CADDIE adds only about ¾ of an inch to chair height, and the casters lock. Those features were incorporated with safety in mind.

The idea that skilled nursing home residents are entering older and sicker will drive the development of more specialized equipment, Roth predicts. His company recently launched the AllCare floor-level bed as a tool for facilities, limiting the use of side rails. 

“Floor-level beds, wider width, larger weight capacity, advanced positioning, and more advanced features … are having demand increase as nursing homes have to face the challenges of dealing with rising levels of acuity,” he says.

Digital presence

Among the features Roth sees gaining popularity are high-tech ones, like embedded scales and fall notification systems.

That’s just the beginning of how technology is influencing design and function in today’s facilities.

 “We see the entire healthcare market ready to explode when it comes to Wi-Fi and the possibilities for residents,” says Josh Lambert, vice president of sales for Allbridge, provider of data, video and voice technology. “Tablets and smartphones will continue to advance and we believe that the resident’s adoption of these pieces of technology and their features will rapidly grow and become the norm.”

The evolution means designers have been able to get rid of some clutter while incorporating new functional elements.

Lambert says he has seen great advances in TV hardware in healthcare settings over the last two years, a trend, like most, that follows hospitality adoptions. Clunky speakers and cable boxes are gone, as are multiple remotes. Wireless access points now allow entertainment and resident engagement services to stream on in-room TVs with simplicity.

“In my opinion, internet connectivity is the key to future technological success in the LTC space,” Lambert adds. “Simple things that we all do now, such as FaceTime or Skype, watching YouTube videos or streaming Netflix will be a basic starting point for the demands of the residents and their families.”

Features like voice command — now available to power in-room lighting and bathroom mirrors — will continue to influence design as more seniors become familiar with the capabilities.

Many senior living communities are already experimenting with such technologies, and these are expected to begin trickling in to nursing homes sooner rather than later.

In New York City, an upscale community being designed by Maplewood Senior Living will offer an even more comprehensive solution for its residents — including those in memory care. Many communities have been using technology that incorporates Amazon’s Alexa. Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, for example, in 2017 launched a six-month Amazon Alexa Pilot Study at Carlsbad By The Sea, a continuing care retirement community in San Diego. Civitas Senior Living also has used Alexa in each of its independent living apartments in suburban Houston.

Eskaton Chief Strategy Officer Sheri Peifer says creating adaptive living environments will “empower the independence and well-being of all residents, regardless of age and ability.